Seanad debates

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Commencement Matters

Undocumented Irish in the USA

2:30 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, to the House.

Photo of Billy LawlessBilly Lawless (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Cathaoirleach selecting this Commencement Matter and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, to the House to discuss this important issue. These past few months have proved that we do indeed live in very uncertain times as witnessed by the Brexit result in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the recent referendum loss for the Italian Prime Minister. They have shown that a groundswell of popular discontent is brewing across the western world. In fact, some even see these wins as a turning point in western democracy itself and a rejection of so-called globalism, along with a return to isolationism and nationalism. The world appears more divided today. Marginal communities, be they immigrants, refugees, Muslims, LGBTQ or people of colour, are feeling unsafe and more afraid in many countries.

On this island we unfortunately understand only too well the dangers of a divided society. We live in a land that has witnessed centuries of bloodshed, social exclusion and emigration, yet today we constantly rank as one of the best places in which to live. I would argue that this is in no small measure due to the outward looking and welcoming nature of Irish people and our renewed desire to embrace and respect diversity. In recent times our ability to absorb and integrate so many new immigrants so quickly into the State is unprecedented in the modern era. It is reflective of our society's inclusive nature. Unfortunately, however, many of the 150,000 Irish immigrants living in the United States do not feel that same sense of welcome of late, and especially the 50,000 undocumented Irish.

The issue of immigration was front and centre in the recent controversial US presidential election campaign. The President-elect even called for mass deportations and a wall on the southern US border. America is a nation of immigrants and home to 40 million Irish Americans representing all shades of diversity and political opinion. The American people have spoken and Donald Trump will assume office next month as the 45th President of the United States. I can only hope that the great strides made in recent years to make the United States a more welcoming country for immigrants will be build on and not undone.

In my adopted home city of Chicago, Illinois, we have passed pro-immigrant legislation that protects families and reaffirms the contributions of all immigrants. The majority of the American people of all political persuasions have consistently shown in poll after poll that they support common sense immigration reform. The Taoiseach has raised the issue of the undocumented Irish and immigration reform with President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Pence. I welcome the Government's commitment to keeping this issue to the fore with the new administration.

I am also aware that our Ambassador to the United States, Anne Anderson, will host a meeting with Irish groups in Washington DC in mid-January to develop a comprehensive united strategy for the undocumented Irish. I ask the Minister of State what the Government's plans are concerning the undocumented Irish in the USA. I would like him to share with this House the Government's strategy to support Irish American community groups on the ground as well as the plans to engage with Irish America in this new era.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Cuirim fáilte roimh an gceist seo atá thar a bheith tábhachtach. Bhí mé i mo Sheanadóir ó 2002 go dtí 2007 agus gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis na Seanadóirí as an bhfáilte go dtí an Teach inniu. I thank Senator Lawless for placing this important topic on the agenda today. The roles currently occupied by Senator Lawless and myself bear testament to the strong commitment of the Government and the Taoiseach, in particular, to the Irish diaspora. I have had the privilege of serving as the State’s second Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, following former Deputy Jimmy Deenihan. The role was created by the Taoiseach in 2014. Senator Lawless was nominated to this House by the Taoiseach in recognition of his strong record in advocating for Irish immigrants abroad, particularly in the United States.I welcome this opportunity to brief the House on our approach to immigration reform in the United States and our work to further develop links with the Irish community in that country. This topic is particularly relevant and timely given the recent presidential and congressional elections in the United States. As Senators will be aware, the new President will be inaugurated on 20 January 2017. Members of the House will appreciate the relationship between Ireland and the US is complex and multi-layered. It is based on shared values as well as our deep political and economic ties. These links are reinforced by the close family links between our two countries which go back many generations and have been sustained by migratory flows across the Atlantic. The Government is acutely conscious of the issue of immigration reform in the United States. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, other Members of Government and I have regular engagement with the Irish diaspora whenever we travel. Our embassy network also does great work in maintaining links between the Irish diaspora and Ireland, with recent arrivals and with those whose forebears left Ireland many generations ago. In my capacity as the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, it is my job to connect with and support our Irish communities abroad. I am charged with the implementation of our diaspora strategy and I am committed to our emigrant support programme. I have seen the benefits of that programme first hand when meeting Irish communities and their representatives in cities, including Boston, San Francisco and New York. I acknowledge Senator Lawless's role in part of the visit to Boston where he introduced me to a number of people he knows personally and in introducing me to the nuances of different issues in dealing with those who are undocumented.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the immigration centres that carry out important work and ensure the Government is kept appraised of challenges facing the community. That contact is vital and I look forward to further engagement with the professional and committed staff who work on a daily basis with Irish immigrants in the United States, including those who are undocumented. The Government has adopted a two-pronged approach to immigration reform in the United States. We are seeking to regularise the status of those who are undocumented and we are also pursuing a dedicated quota for legal immigration from Ireland. We have and will continue to press for a solution for the undocumented Irish. The support of politicians in the United States is essential and during my recent visit to Boston, I had the opportunity to meet Governor Baker of Massachusetts, Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston and representatives of local organisations. While a new US administration and a new Congress will take time to settle in, nevertheless, the Government will continue to pursue this issue in our contacts with the new Administration and congressional leaders, and to encourage and promote any viable prospects for a solution to the plight of those who are undocumented.

I wish to assure the House that the Government continues to strongly advocate on the issue of immigration reform in the US at every appropriate opportunity with our contacts in the United States, including at the highest level. The Taoiseach has raised the subject with President Obama on a number of occasions and more recently we are aware that President-elect Trump has made some public comments regarding his planned policies around immigration. The Taoiseach raised the matter of immigration reform with both the President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Pence last month. Furthermore, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, raised the matter with Speaker Paul Ryan on 23 November last. Speaker Ryan, a proud Irish-American with a keen understanding of the importance the Government attaches to this issue, indicated that he was hopeful of progress on this issue in the new Congress.

I acknowledge the work of our embassy in Washington DC and our consulates across the United States, which continue to set out Ireland’s position on immigration reform at every opportunity. I note that Ambassador Anderson will host a meeting with key stakeholders in the Irish-American community, including the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres, on the issue of immigration reform at the Embassy of Ireland, in Washington DC on 12 January next.

Engagements by the Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and other members of Government in the US in mid-March on the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day will afford us an early opportunity to engage with the new US administration at the highest level on issues of concern to Ireland, in particular immigration reform.

Photo of Billy LawlessBilly Lawless (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am delighted the Government is looking for a dedicated quota for Ireland but unfortunately we lost 17,500 visas in 1965 and we never recovered that. This is one area I would like to pursue also.Lest I forget, three years ago I lobbied for the Bill that was passed in the Senate. It was a full and comprehensive Bill that had bipartisan support and provision for 10,500 visas in perpetuity for Ireland, but unfortunately it never went to the House. The President-elect has threatened that he will rescind President Obama's order for deferred action for childhood arrivals, DACA. More than 740,000 applicants acquired DACA a couple of years ago, a small number of whom were Irish. The President-elect has also threatened to withdraw federal funding for the sanctuary cities, which include Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle and San Francisco. In those cities, law enforcement officials do not co-operate with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE.

It is a worrying time but the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, is aware of that and I thank him for his response. I will have to keep the pressure on the Government. To be fair to the Minister of State, when he does come, the lobbying is direct, but let us get back to where we were in 1965 by seeking the 17,000 visas that we had.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senator again. I will point to the very real human stories behind the issue. The Senator knows them at a personal level in Chicago and other places. I met someone who has been in the United States since 1986. To put that into perspective, that was the year I did what was not the junior certificate but the intermediate certificate at the time. That man has remained undocumented since 1986, which demonstrates the real human impact. Another person told me he put his two teenagers on a plane to Ireland, although he could not join them. The Senator knows the stories and has heard the anecdotes too.

The clear message I get from the undocumented Irish in America is there has to be a solution. There is always a solution. I think that is part of the Irish psyche. Our backs have been against the wall many times. I spoke about the tradition of migratory flows on the other side of the Atlantic but these have not been just to America directly but also have been through Canada, as well as to the United Kingdom, in the main, and the rest of the world. It is when their backs are against the wall that Irish people deliver. That is when they try to figure things out. The consistent request that has been made of me in my role is for the Government to sustain the pressure. We are doing it at the highest level. I am open to suggestion from this House and to continuing the relationship with the Senator, whose position offers a vital foothold into American communities. We have to keep this high on the agenda. I am prepared to return to the United States early in the new year to meet communities there again and to keep the issue live.

On a final note and in agreement with the Senator's first remarks, we do live in a different world. It is a world where perhaps minds are dominated by fear, retreat and isolationism. However, the Irish are global in our outlook and confident against the worst of adversity. We also are pragmatic and able to come up with common-sense solutions. Given the 36 million to 37 million people who claim Irish ancestry and the massive amount of business conducted on an east-west basis through foreign direct investment in this country and vice versa, we have a concrete relationship with the United States. There is hope. We have a duty to figure this out and to find a solution.