ILIR Chairman Niall O'Dowd testifying at the Senate Immigration Hearings

    • On July 12, ILIR chairman Niall O'Dowd testified at the Senate Immigration Hearings in Washington, DC.

    • Mr O'Dowd told the panel - which included Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) - that in 2006, Ireland received 160 Diversity Visas out of a global total of 50,000 and 2,083 “green cards” from a global total of 1,122,373. (See Full Statistics here)

    • Senator Sessions (R-AL) was surprised to hear that Ireland receives so few visas in the yearly total. He was so surprised that he acknowledged the Irish contribution in an op-ed in the Washington Times

Transcript of ILIR Chairman Niall O'Dowd's testimony and related remarks from Senators Kennedy, Specter, Leahy and Sessions. Click here 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.

Senator Kennedy.

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 role.

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 has done.

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 this --

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 home.

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 family emergency.

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.

Senator Sessions.

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 issues.



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