ILIR campaigners lobby Congress on March 8. Picture; Sean McPhailTide turns in US immigration debate
Sunday Business Post
16 April 2006
Niall Stanage

When Irish campaigners made their way to Washington DC last month to press their case for more generous treatment of illegal immigrants, few observers gave them much chance of success.

The protesters numbered about 2,400.The sceptics said the obstacles blocking their way, including an apparently widespread belief among native-born Americans that illegal immigration was endangering their national security, were too high to surmount.

The picture looks very different now. Recent weeks have seen a series of tumultuous events in the immigration debate in the United States, with senators leaping into action, hundreds of thousands of Hispanics taking to the streets for massive demonstrations, and a perceptible shift in the centre of political gravity on the issue.

The tide turned so fast that, ten days ago, the Senate looked set to approve legislation that would have provided millions of illegal aliens with a path to US citizenship and created a ‘guest worker’ programme to enable 325,000 non-nationals to enter America each year.

The deal fell apart at the last minute amid recriminations between Republicans and Democrats.

Nevertheless, the Senate is expected to return to the subject when its spring recess ends in a week’s time. Many immigrants’ advocates believe that a bill akin to the earlier proposal will eventually be passed.

Irish and Irish-American activists contend that their actions played a key role in making the political atmosphere more conducive to progress. Although Irish illegal immigrants represent a drop in the ocean – they amount to only an estimated 25,000 of the 11 million ‘illegals’ said to be in the US - some evidence suggests they have better access to the corridors of power than other ethnic groups.

For instance, Senator Charles Schumer of New York first proclaimed his support for liberalisation of immigration laws at an Irish-orientated event.

The New York Times noted that Schumer and his colleague Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with other heavyweights like Edward Kennedy and John McCain, addressed the Irish crowd in Washington last month, but not a much larger Hispanic audience who rallied the previous day.

‘‘The Irish took the lead in going to Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress. The Irish began to change the dynamic of the whole debate,” Grant Lally, president of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR), told The Sunday Business Post. The ILIR organised last month’s Washington event.

Other ethnic groups ultimately marshalled bigger numbers and so created a bigger impact, however.

The traditional - and understandable - reticence of illegal immigrants to take part in public protests has fallen away recently.

When a ‘‘national day of action for immigrant justice’’ was called on Monday, 180,000 people demonstrated in Washington, 100,000 each in New York and Phoenix, and 50,000 each in Atlanta and Houston.

The previous day, an immigrants’ event in Dallas drew a crowd estimated at 500,000.

‘‘We never anticipated it getting this big,’’ a Dallas police spokesman told reporters. ‘‘The estimates were anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000, and they kept coming and coming.”

A rally in Los Angeles in late March also brought about 500,000 people onto the streets, making it one of the biggest gatherings in the city’s history.

The crowds in all these instances were predominantly Hispanic, though in some cities, particularly New York, many nationalities and ethnic groups were in evidence. The marchers said they were motivated, not just by hope for liberal reform, but by fear and anger about the possible passage of more restrictive legislation.

Illegal immigration is a deeply divisive issue in America. On one side are advocates for immigrants, who argue that ‘illegals’ who work hard and contribute to society should be allowed to legalise their status. They have formed a loose and sometimes uneasy alliance with representatives of the business community, who assert that the US labour market needs a steady supply of immigrants.

On the other side of the debate are those who contend that allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens amounts to offering an amnesty to lawbreakers. Some, but not all, of those people also believe that the ongoing influx of millions of Mexicans and other Hispanics will change the cultural character of the US in ways they regard as undesirable.

Until the past month, conservatives had seemed to be in the ascendant. Late last year, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would have reclassified illegal immigrants as criminals and threatened stiff punishments against those who helped them remain inside America’s borders.

However, on March 22, in a move that showed how the sands were shifting, Hillary Clinton decried that bill, arguing that it would ‘‘literally criminalise the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself’’.

Last week, the two most senior Republicans in Congress backed away from the House bill, saying they had no intention of subjecting illegal immigrants to prosecution as felons.

‘‘The House did not pass a comprehensive immigration bill,” said Grant Lally, who once ran for Congress as a Republican, and remains well connected within the party.

‘‘That bill was about national security and I think there are tremendous regrets about some of the provisions contained within it.”

The proposal upon which the Senate almost agreed was a lot more liberal, though it also included measures to tighten border security.

It would have given the estimated seven million ‘illegals’ who have been in the US for five years or more a clear course to citizenship, subject to certain conditions including the payment of a fine.

Those who have been in the US for between two and five years would have had to reapply for a temporary work visa at a border crossing.

They would also have had to complete a longer, more arduous process if they wanted to become citizens.

The approximately one million people who have been in the US for less than two years would officially have had to leave the country - whether they would actually have done so is another question - and then hope to win places on the temporary worker programme.

The Senate deal foundered on a dispute about amendments to the bill. But Lally is among those who profess confidence that an agreement will be reached soon.

‘‘I am cautiously optimistic,” he said. ‘‘I think senators in both parties realise that people want a bill passed. There is a great deal of leadership support on both sides.”

Lally emphasised that the intertwined histories of Ireland and America lent Irish activists ongoing leverage on the issue.

‘‘The Irish experience has been central to the growth of this country,” he said. ‘‘To take a xenophobic approach to the Irish would be like attacking the essence of America.”

Other concerns have also played a part in the move towards immigration reform. There are approximately 42 million Hispanics in the US. Many are already legal and of voting age.

But millions of others are under 18 or not yet citizens. When they do get voting rights, they will immediately become a huge and vital constituency.

‘‘Today we march!” chanted some protesters at a recent rally, ‘‘tomorrow we vote!”

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All photographs by Sean McPhail
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