Transcript of ILIR Chairman Niall O'Dowd's testimony and
related remarks from Senators Kennedy, Specter, Leahy and Sessions.
for a print-ready version
SEN. SPECTER: Thank you very much, Dr. McDonald.
Our final witness is Mr. Niall O'Dowd, who came to the
United States in 1979 and soon began his first business, an Irish American
newspaper in San Francisco. In 1985, he moved to New York, where he
founded the Irish America Magazine and later the Irish Voice newspaper.
In 1992, he founded a group called the Connolly House Group which has
been involved in the Irish peace process. He has been awarded an honorary
doctorate from his alma mater, the University College, Dublin, in recognition
of his work on Irish issues in America.
We appreciate your being here, Mr. O'Dowd, and look forward
to your testimony.
MR. NIALL O'DOWD: Thank you very much, Chairman.
My name is Niall O'Dowd, I am founder and chairman of
the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, and also founder and publisher
of Irish Voice newspaper and Irish America Magazine, the two largest
Irish American publications. I am a native of Ireland, once undocumented,
but now a very proud American citizen.
I have lived the immigrant dream in America since coming
here in 1979. I started a newspaper with less than $1,000 in 1979 in
California and made a success of it. Currently I employ 22 people in
New York City, running both of my companies. But I come here representing
the 50,000 Irish undocumented in the United States and the millions
of Irish Americans who are looking for a resolution to this issue.
Since the inception of the Irish Lobby for Immigration
Reform last December, we have held scores of public meetings across
the United States attended by thousands, and have held two lobbying
days in Washington D.C. A total of over 5,000 Irish Americans from across
the United States came to Washington for both lobbying days.
The facts are clear to us. Without immigration reform,
the Irish-born community in the United States will no longer exist,
and one of the greatest contributors to the success of this nation will
be no more. Our neighborhoods are disappearing, our community organizations
are in steep decline, our sporting and cultural organizations are deeply
affected by the lack of legal immigration.
Meanwhile, our undocumented community is under siege.
They can no longer travel to Ireland, even when family tragedies occur.
Their driver's licenses will not be renewed, which means mothers can
not drive their children to school. The day to day struggle of living
illegally in America has taken a heavy personal toll on them. I submit
that they deserve better.
Everything they have worked years for in America, building
their own American dream, is now falling around them, and I submit that
America will be the big loser. I know that hundreds of these immigrants,
Irish construction workers, worked with little more than their bare
hands to try to uncover bodies at ground zero after 9/11. Irish labor
union members and construction crews were among the first on the scene,
and they tried frantically to save lives, working alongside rescuers,
who included thousands of Irish American fire and police workers. No
one was calling them Irish illegals then.
They did no more than previous Irish generations. As President
Bush has stated, "Throughout our history, America has been greatly
blessed by the innumerable contributions of the Irish." Unfortunately,
the contribution of Irish-born may be about to end. If the Irish antecedents
of Andrew Jackson, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan were trying to enter
the United States today, they would have to do so illegally.
The sad reality is that there is simply no way for the
overwhelming majority of Irish people to come to the United States legally
at present. So when people say to me the Irish should get in line to
come here, I tell them there is no line we can join, there is no way
the vast majority of our people can come legally to America.
The figures for the Irish bear this out. Of the almost
1 million green card visas given out last year, about 2,000 went to
the Irish. Since 1995, in the Diversity Visa Program, which was intended
in part to help old seed countries, Ireland has been successful in obtaining
one half of one per cent, or 2,800 visas out of half a million. Such
realities, however, have not stopped thousands of Irish doing what generations
of Irish have done since they served in George Washington's army; coming
to America and living the American dream like generations before them.
I can tell you about Mary, who is 36, whose brother was
killed in a car crash a few months ago, and she had to listen to his
funeral down a phone line because she cannot go home and grieve with
her family. She is now a registered nurse, a proud homeowner and intends
to marry soon. Hospitals would snap her up in a moment if she became
available. She deserves her American dream.
Then there is Brian, who is 32, a contractor, among the
first to go to ground zero, because he was working nearby. Brian continues
to believe in his American dream. He has six Americans working full
time for him, and he looks forward to the day he can take his new wife
back to Ireland and meet the families they have not seen for years.
Eamon, who is 38, came over from Armagh 14 years ago,
in Northern Ireland. There were no jobs in his town because of the troubles,
and the only recruiting was being done by paramilitaries. Here, Eamon
now runs his own roofing company and employs six persons legally.
So many others I know have children their grandparents
have never seen or live in daily fear of being deported, or worse, a
family tragedy back in Ireland which would end their lives here. These
are typical stories of the Irish undocumented here in America. They
ask for just one thing; the opportunity to live their American dream
like so many generations of Irish before them. My deepest desire, and
that of millions of Irish Americans around this great country, is that
their wish can be granted. With your help, I believe it can.
Thank you very much indeed.
SEN. SPECTER: Thank you very much, Mr. O'Dowd.
(Break for questioning of other panel member)
SEN. SPECTER: I want to ask one question for Mr. O'Dowd
before my time expires.
You've cited two very prominent men. President John Kennedy
and President Ronald Reagan.
MR. O'DOWD: Yes.
SEN. SPECTER: I know your views, that our country has
been immeasurably strengthened by the immigrants, would you care to
expand upon that?
MR. O'DOWD: Well, I think that if you look at any area
of American life, the Irish Americans have contributed lately. Eugene
O'Neill, people like that have contributed so much to the arts and theater
here. I think the fact is that from our point of view as a community,
it will be America's great loss if Irish born people can no longer come
to America legally.
And it's something that I know you have seen the people
here who've come all the way from New York this morning, they went to
Miami last week. They're people who feel very, very, very strongly about
this issue, that the Irish born people who have contributed so much
in this country should not be prevented from coming here legally. And
unfortunately, I don't think that was the intent of the laws, but that
is the effect of -- nature of the law right now.
SEN. SPECTER: Thank you very much.
SEN. KENNEDY: Thank you very much, and welcome to our
panel. I want to just take a moment to personally welcome Niall O'Dowd.
You have, Mr. Chairman, but I think for all of us who are very mindful
of the enormous progress that we have seen in the reduction of violence
in Northern Ireland and the desire of trying to move from the bullet
to the ballot, the -- this gentleman here played an absolutely indispensable
You all acknowledge the great role that our friend and
former colleague George Mitchell played, but Niall was an enormously
important figure in the earliest days in developing the ceasefire and
the support for the figures that demonstrated some important courage
at a very key part of that evolution, and we're still hopeful that those
institutions that were established at the time of the Good Friday agreement
are going to be put up and running, so that we're going to have the
beginning of a real democracy in the north.
And I know you could talk about that as well, but we'll
do that at another time. But I think the depth of his support I think
is well understood by all of us on this committee that welcome our good
friends that are here today, thank them for joining with us. They joined
with us in Philadelphia and they joined with us in Miami. I don't see
many of the Miami group here, but I can't let the moment go by without
welcomg Kelly Fincham as well, and thank her so much for all that she
What we have seen is sort of these dramatic changes in
the immigration bill. Prior to the '65 act, we had about 30,000 Irish
that were coming in, and then we had those reduced to about 20,000.
And then with the '86 act, it was really something different, it was
about those that were here undocumented and the employer sanctions,
which I never thought were going to work, voted against it.
But then with the changes that were made and even the
acceptance of the diversity program, each and every one of those brought
a gradual reduction, really unintended. What we were trying to do was
eliminate the discrimination that existed in the law, but the way that
that legislation was developed worked in a very dramatic and significant
way against the Irish.
And we've seen that elimination of the diversity program.
There were only several hundred that took advantage of the diversity
program last time, but we changed and altered that from what was a high
school diploma and had to demonstrate that they were going to be independent
in terms of being able to come here and work, be part of the whole process
and the American system, now we've raised that up to a much higher degree
of academic achievement and accomplishment, even though we've done that
in other parts of the bill.
So we've worked again to -- that'll work to a disadvantage.
So this is very, very real, and I think we've listened to it.
I really -- I am going to be short on the time, unfortunately,
but could you talk, Niall, just about what the -- tell us a little bit
about how people feel, first of all about criminality. We've heard a
good deal about criminality. What's your sense about the extent of the
criminality, the commitment of serious crimes, the abuse of the welfare
system, the failing to play by the rules? I'd like you to talk about
that, but I want you to give a short answer, because I have another
question and only a couple of minutes left here.
MR. O'DOWD: Sure. Well, briefly, there is not a single
person I know in the Irish community who is against having a secure
border in America. There is almost, I imagine, no criminality in the
community itself that I would know of. Irish people that come to America
come here to work, and they come here to build a life and to build their
own American dream. So I think they're not direct issues that affect
them as much.
But I think overall that they feel very strongly that
a lot of these statistics are hyped up to make this seem a lot worse
than it is, in terms of the contribution of illegals or of undocumented
Irish to this country.
SEN. KENNEDY: Let me ask you to talk about the feeling
of an undocumented. I'm interested in that fear of deportation, the
separation of family, the real dangers of depression and sense of desolation.
What does this do to the individuals that are attempting to be a part
of the American dream, to play by the rules, to make a contribution,
devoted to their religion and the members of their family? What does
MR. O'DOWD: I think it's a devastating thing. We have
a case, as I mentioned here, Mary, who's one of our chief operators
at the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. Her brother was killed in
a car crash in Ireland about three months ago. She could not go home.
She's made her life here, she's been here 16 years, she's a registered
nurse. She had to listen to her brother's funeral down a phone line,
and you can only imagine the impact that had on her and her family at
And that's unfortunately an all too common theme.
People are waiting for that dreadful phone call from Ireland
that someone has died or that their parents are ill. We have numerous
cases where people have to make a horrific decision between staying
here and keeping their hope alive of living the American dream, or having
to go back to Ireland and basically end everything here because of a
And these are people, as you say, who have made huge contributions
to this society. I go back to ground zero. We figured there was about
300 Irish construction workers who went to ground zero that morning,
who spent the next seven or eight days digging bodies, helping as much
as they could. And the point I made was nobody was calling them illegal
then, because of what they did.
And I think if you look at the number of Irish who died
at ground zero, you will see what a great tradition and a heroic tradition
that they represented.
SEN. KENNEDY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, my time is up.
SEN. SPECTER: Thank you, Senator Kennedy.
SEN. SESSIONS: Thank you very much.
As we go forward, I think the concern that the American
people rightly have and I have is many of these complex questions are
not amenable to being settled in a secret conference committee appointed
by the leaders of both houses without much or virtually any input from
the American people in the process. I'm very nervous about that. That's
why I think that this hearing and the one you had previously, Mr. Chairman,
was good. It allows us to discuss some of the complex issues.
Now, Mr. O'Dowd, you make some points here that I'm surprised
at. You said if John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan or Eugene O'Neill were
trying to enter the United States today, they'd have to enter illegally.
You say the sad reality is there's simply no way for the overwhelming
majority of Irish people to come to the United States legally at present,
and that out of a million green cards given out last year, only 2,000
went to Irish. Why? Why don't we fix that?
I'll tell you, there's nothing in this bill that fixes
that. So what can we do to draft a comprehensive bill that would allow
people with the family and historical connection to have a better chance,
some better chance than this to enter the United States?
MR. O'DOWD: Well, I think my organization's primarily
concerned right now with the undocumented Irish who are here, and certainly
the Senate bill would work very much in their favor.
SEN. SESSIONS: Well, we've got to get beyond just that
problem. We've got to treat those people that came illegally somehow
in a compassionate way.
MR. O'DOWD: Right.
SEN. SESSIONS: We're not sure what we're going to do,
but we're going to do something. But we've got to think about drafting
a comprehensive bill. Let's draft one that's comprehensive, that deals
with the problem that you just raised. Now, you tell me how we want
to fix that. Don't be just a team player now with the crowd. You tell
me what you can do.
MR. O'DOWD: Well, I think up to 1965 obviously Europeans
were able to immigrate legally to the United States in much higher numbers
than they are now, and clearly if you have a specific plan like there
was in the late '80s, there was -- what was called old seed immigrant
countries got a certain amount of visas through two programs. One was
called the Donnelly Visa, after Congressman Donnelly; the other was
called after Congressman Bruce Morrison, the Morrison Visa. But they
were certainly very accessible, but they were unfortunately time limited,
they only lasted three years.
But the Irish community at the time developed hugely as
a result of those. So it's a question of fairness, more than anything.
We don't want to take visas off anyone. We don't want to be seen to
do that. But we do want a system where we will get an equal opportunity
to come here as much as any other country.
SEN. SESSIONS: Thank you. Time is so short on all these