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Irish Voice News
Stop Misleading the Undocumented
April 16, 2008
By Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
DURING almost 11 years as taoiseach (prime minister), I have visited the United States on many occasions and have come to know and deeply respect the vibrant and multilayered nature of the Irish community there.
In my address to Congress on April 30, I will have an opportunity to pay a warm tribute to this community and the enormous contribution it has made to both the U.S. and Ireland.
In my address, I will also once again emphasize the government’s strong support for the undocumented Irish. In doing so, I will be making a further direct intervention on an issue to which, rightly and very willingly, I have given unprecedented priority during my time in office.
I firmly believe that the government’s record on behalf of the undocumented and all our emigrants in the United States is second to none.
Over many years, we have engaged intensely with the U.S. administration and with Congress to try to find a solution for our citizens caught in such unfortunate circumstances. The matter has been a lead item on my agenda for all my recent St. Patrick’s Day visits to Washington, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern has likewise made it a key priority himself and for his department.
It is very regrettable, therefore, that in recent weeks our commitment to the undocumented has to some degree been called into question. Much of this public criticism, apart from being misleading, has been unhelpful to the undocumented themselves.
To date, the government has tried to avoid replying to much of these inaccurate and unfair comments. We strongly believe that we should work together to achieve a common aim.
However, lest any of the vulnerable people whom we are trying to assist be misled into believing parts of these statements, I reluctantly feel that I must set the record straight.
Following the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation last year, despite the best lobbying efforts of the government, we have held detailed discussions with Senators Kennedy, Schumer and a range of other senior congressional figures about a specific proposal — referred to by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) representatives in the media — which, if successful, would make thousands of visas available to Irish citizens each year (including the undocumented) and indeed to U.S. citizens interested in working in Ireland. ILIR are well aware that the government has tried hard to take forward these helpful proposals.
The government has also lobbied the U.S. administration in favor of this proposal. The minister for foreign affairs, for instance, discussed it at great length with the secretary for homeland security as far back as last October, and also with Senators Kennedy and Schumer.
And despite ILIR’s claims to the contrary, our ambassador has had several exchanges with the senior counsel to President Bush, Ed Gillespie, prior to ILIR’s recent meeting with him.
The suggestion, therefore, that the government has failed to take forward a proposal made by ILIR is wrong. We have in fact repeatedly made clear our strong and active support for the initiative.
The reality, however, is that the advice from all our contacts in Congress — and they are the people who would have to pass the necessary legilsation in order to deliver on the initiative — is that it will be exceptionally difficult to build the necessary political support for such a measure during the period of the presidential election campaign. We may not like this advice, but we cannot ignore it or wish it away.
Contrary to misleading suggestions also, no other country has been able to secure a bilateral visa arrangement since September 11 which would be open to their undocumented citizens. The bilateral arrangements which the United States has with a number of countries, including Australia, Singapore and Chile, have absolutely nothing to do with undocumented nationals from those countries.
These programs are for highly skilled workers, and exclude any person who has entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visa. Holding these up as an example of dealing with the Irish undocumented is utterly misleading, and does a serious disservice to the undocumented and their families.
The issue of the undocumented Irish has been a priority for this government not for any selfish reason or for political advantage — because there is little or none — but because we are committed to helping those of our citizens who have found themselves in this unfortunate position.
I have listened to and been moved by people who were trapped in a new situation in the post-9/11 world. I believe that it is my duty to do everything in my power to help them, and this is what motivates the active and on-going efforts of the government.
The government has also been pleased to provide $185,000 in financial support to ILIR. This funding is out of the monies (some €15 million in 2008) provided by the Irish taxpayer for the provision of services to our Irish emigrant communities worldwide, including through supporting the work of the various Irish centers in the U.S.
As I have made clear above, the political reality is that immigration has become an extremely divisive political issue in the post-9/11 United States. The reaction of Congress simply reflects the controversial nature of the subject at local level. And in its approach to sensitive issues of this kind, Congress will naturally enough reflect the political mood of the American people.
As I said in Washington on St. Patrick’s Day, the undocumented Irish deserve to be told the truth about what may or may not be possible for us to achieve this year. The government has no intention of misleading, peddling false hopes or spinning to such a vulnerable group of our citizens.
While the current atmosphere prevails, it will be difficult to achieve our shared objectives. This does not mean that we will slacken in any way in our efforts.
However, our quest is not helped by divisive calls on the Irish government to ignore reality, and somehow wave a magic wand to effortlessly force the U.S. Congress to make an exception for us.
We will continue to press the case for change and look forward to working with the many organizations in the U.S. who have worked hard on behalf of the undocumented. We should and must work together.
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