Irish prepare to advance on Capitol Hill

Denis Staunton

America: Next Wednesday morning, 1,400 Irish Americans will converge on Washington, arriving in buses from Boston, New York and Pittsburgh and flying in from as far away as San Francisco.

Wearing white T-shirts with the slogan "Legalise the Irish", they will rally on Capitol Hill, handing in letters to legislators calling for an immigration reform bill that could regularise their status.

Since its foundation three months ago, the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) has become a sensation within America's Irish community, surprising its own originators by attracting crowds of more than 1,000 to meetings across the country.

"At the height of the immigration debate in the 1980s when we got the Morrison visa, the most we ever got into a hall was 400-500 people. Now we're not able to cover all the areas where undocumented people are living," said Ciaran Staunton, a New York publican and veteran campaigner on behalf of Irish immigrants.

Formed to campaign in favour of a Bill proposed by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy that would make a temporary worker visa with a path to US citizenship available to undocumented immigrants, the ILIR has recently broadened its focus to consider other strategies for resolving the problems of Irish immigrants.

The group has received $30,000 from the Government, which has identified immigration reform as a priority in its relationship with Washington.

Staunton believes the undocumented immigrants who come to the meetings have been empowered by meeting others in the same position and taking action on their own behalf.

"In the long term they're hoping to get their status sorted in this country, to stop living in the shadows, to get on with their lives in America, to get some kind of normality back. In the short term they're hoping to create a national organisation, mainly of young Irish people to influence both the US government and the Irish government. Politicians notice crowds. When you have 1,000 political activists in a hall, politicians notice that," he said.

Next week's rally comes as the US Senate has begun a month-long effort to find agreement on how to reform America's immigration system, the failures of which have become a potent political issue in the run-up to November's congressional elections.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are split three ways on the issue, with some backing the Kennedy/McCain Bill, others insisting that immigrants on a temporary work visa should leave the country after six years and hardliners calling for a crackdown on employers of illegal labour and the deportation of all undocumented immigrants.

The committee's Republican chairman, Arlen Specter, acknowledged he had no support for his own compromise Bill that tries to reconcile the demands of business (supported by President George W Bush) for a guest worker program with the backlash against illegal immigration.

"I have seen virtually no agreement on anything. Emotions are at an all-time high," he said.

All sides agree on tougher border and interior enforcement. But Specter made clear that he wanted to find a way to draw "out of the shadows" the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country.

Irish Voice publisher and ILIR chairman Niall O'Dowd recognises the depth of feeling in some parts of the US against illegal immigration but maintains that the debate boosts Irish lobbying efforts.

"Immigration is only considered once every 15 years anyway so if you were trying this in a year when there was no immigration activity, it just wouldn't succeed. The Congress would be focused elsewhere. We're not necessarily tying ourselves totally into Kennedy/McCain or any Bill. In fact, we've been looking at a lot of different strategies as to how this thing could happen and one of the things we've been looking at is what the Australians did last year which was to get a special visa programme as part of a bilateral agreement," he said.

The Australian deal was part of a bilateral trade deal, which O'Dowd acknowledges would be impossible for Ireland to replicate because the EU now negotiates all trade treaties on behalf of Ireland.

But he is determined that any solution to the plight of undocumented Irish immigrants should be an enduring one that will prevent a similar crisis a few years from now.




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All photographs by Sean McPhail
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