Deputy Joe McHugh (Fine Gael) asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will provide an update on his recent engagements with American Senators in respect of resolution for Irish citizens who live without documentation in the USA.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Eamon Gilmore: The position of the undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States is an important priority for the Government. President Obama has indicated his strong support for progress on comprehensive immigration reform. Work is currently underway in Congress on agreeing the terms of the reform and the indications of emerging bipartisan support for reform are encouraging. In this regard, the Embassy in Washington has intensified its contacts with members of Congress to ensure that the interests and concerns of undocumented Irish immigrants are captured in any future legislative deal in this area that emerges. In addition, I am currently undertaking a round of contacts with key Senators.
I spoke with Senator John McCain on 8 February last to discuss the prospects for progress and to express the Government’s appreciation for the efforts he and others are making in developing bipartisan Senate proposals and to underline our ongoing interest in the issue. I look forward to continuing my contacts with other Senators in the coming weeks.
The Taoiseach and I will be in the United States to fulfil St. Patrick’s Day engagements and we will take every opportunity to discuss this issue further in our contacts at political level.
My Department is also in close and regular contact with the Irish community groups who provide assistance to the undocumented and who are promoting immigration reform.
Deputy John Deasy (FG, taking the question for Deputy McHugh): I listened to the Tánaiste's earlier response to Deputy Brendan Smith with regard to the best advice being that comprehensive legislation was the best way of securing a deal on the undocumented issue. I disagree with that. It has not been the only advice and in fact, the people who have been advising that this is not the best way of getting a deal for the Irish have been proven right, unfortunately, for the last 20 years. The problem is that there never has been a plan B put into operation either by this or the previous Government. In terms of emerging bipartisan support being encouraging, it is too early to say. I do not know if the Tánaiste is aware that over the weekend the White House leaked a draft bill on immigration reform but one of the critical Senators on the Republican side, Senator Rubio, said that if the draft arrived on Capitol Hill it would be dead on arrival. There have been a lot of false dawns. While we have made progress with regard to the E3 visa, as the Tánaiste has said, it will not cover the bulk of the undocumented Irish.
The Tánaiste said that he has talked with various Senators and will talk with others over the coming days. Who is he speaking to on the Republican side? The House of Representatives in the United States is held by the Republican Party.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: We have to recognise when circumstances change. Anybody addressing this question a year or more ago would certainly have said that comprehensive immigration reform was largely off the agenda in the United States. It is back on the agenda now and we must recognise that. It has been put back on the agenda because it was an issue in the United States presidential election and President Obama has made a number of very clear statements about it in the aftermath of that election. On the back of that, it is appropriate and right that we pursue this matter in the interests of the undocumented Irish living in the United States.
I am aware of the statement that was made by Senator Marco Rubio. The key people on the Republican side with whom we are in touch include Senator John McCain, to whom I have spoken directly, Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Rubio, Senator Jeff Flake, Congressman Paul Ryan and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner. We have also been discussing this issue with Senator Shumer, Senator Durbin, Senator Menendez, Senator Bennet from the Democratic side, Senator Leahy and Senator Kirk. We have been in contact with a broad range of people on Capitol Hill.
The issue of comprehensive immigration reform is back on the agenda. People can speculate about whether this is a false or real dawn but our responsibility is to pursue it in the interests of the estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish people in the United States.
John Deasy: The names the Tánaiste read out are, in many cases, the usual suspects. The reality is that over the last ten or 15 years we have lost sway on Capitol Hill and we have lost sway in particular with the Republican Party. Unless an executive order is signed, this needs to go through Congress. The House is held by the Republicans and the opinion of that party on immigration has hardened over the last five or six years. We have not made any inroads into that party in terms of convincing it that a standalone deal, if necessary, is good for the Republicans.
I wish to remind the Tánaiste that when it came to the green cards, it was Republican presidencies that allowed that to happen, namely former Presidents Bush and Reagan. The Visa Waiver Bill, which has helped Ireland so much over the last 18 years, was passed by a Republican-dominated Congress. The Clinton administration was actually against it. Unless we have a return to the kind of situation that we had 20 years ago with, in particular, the Republican Party and if comprehensive immigration reform fails again we will be left in the same position in which we currently find ourselves.
Eamon Gilmore: I am not sure that it helps our cause to engage in commentary on the politics of the United States. The politics of the United States is a matter for the people of that country, the Congress and Senate and I am not going to engage in a discussion on which Administration, Congress or majority holds a particular view. As far as we are concerned, as a Government we will work with both sides of the aisle. We will work with Democrats and Republicans. My assessment is that this is an issue that requires a bipartisan approach. We worked, for example, on the E3 issue on a bipartisan basis. I had a very good and very frank discussion last week with Senator John McCain about these issues. I hope I will be able to meet him and some of his colleagues during the course of the St. Patrick's Day events. We intend to pursue this issue and if there is any assistance that any Member of the House can provide to us with regard to introductions, either to a particular party or representatives of that party, we would very gladly avail of it.
John Deasy: Is the Tánaiste inviting me to come to Washington with him on St. Patrick's Day?
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I am inviting Deputy Deasy to give me his list of contacts in the Republican Party.
Deputy Brendan Smith (Fianna Fáil): Personal introductions are always better.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Deputy Michael Kitt, FF): We will have nobody giving out phone numbers.