Undocumented Irish in the United States: Motion.

I move:

"That Dáil Éireann, recognises:

the very difficult situation for thousands of Irish people of undocumented status living and working in the United States;

the difficulties that the undocumented Irish experience because of their irregular legal status and the fear of deportation;

that the undocumented deserve enormous credit for their highly effective public awareness and lobbying campaign in the United States, particularly through the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform;

the ongoing efforts of the Government, members of the Oireachtas and the undocumented Irish themselves to bring this situation to a satisfactory resolution;

the strong economic ties between the island of Ireland and the United States and the contribution that Irish emigrants make to economic, social and cultural life in the US; and

that efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the United States Congress have so far been unsuccessful;

welcomes:

the commitment of the Government and the Oireachtas to finding a satisfactory solution for the undocumented and to creating new reciprocal immigration arrangements between Ireland and the United States aimed at further enhancing our close bilateral relationship; and

the strong support given by many members of the United States Congress to Irish issues, including efforts to resolve the difficulties facing the undocumented;

supports:

ongoing discussions at the highest level with the US Administration and Congress to establish reciprocal bilateral arrangements which would benefit Irish and American citizens seeking to work and travel in our two countries; and

the strong commitment of the Oireachtas and the Government to continued engagement with the US Administration and Congress to resolve the difficulties experienced by the undocumented."

I am delighted that an agreement has been reached between Fine Gael and the Government so that we will not have to divide the House on this motion. It is only fitting given the political significance of this issue that a joint motion was brought.

I wish to share time with Deputies McGinley, Perry, Tom Hayes, Neville, McHugh and Breen, by agreement.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The issue before us does not only affect the 50,000 undocumented Irish in the United States or impact on the families and friends we met earlier who are clearly so worried about the plight of their loved ones. It is an issue that affects us all because it is our responsibility not to turn our backs on the people who were forced to leave this country during a darker time in our economic history.

The situation facing undocumented Irish in the US has become more precarious since 11 September 2001. Many Irish people are unable to obtain driving licences or even travel to Ireland at the most upsetting of times, such as when they need to attend a family funeral. However, the situation is now reaching a crisis point. There are reports of Irish people being targeted, arrested and deported and the matter is growing ever more grave. In recent weeks, six undocumented Irish people, one woman and five men, were arrested. One of those arrested had been in the United States for 12 years and, like many others, had built a life there before seeing it swept from under his feet in a matter of days. Another individual was forced to return to Ireland and was barred from re-entering the United States. As a result, he was unable to bring home the remains of a brother who had died in the US. The Irish community is living in greater fear than ever and is near desperation point, yet the Government demonstrates little or no understanding of their situation. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has dropped the ball on this issue. It is not good enough that Irish people anywhere should be allowed to live in such conditions. There is little hope that any of those people will receive working visas at any point in the future.

In 2006, Irish people received a mere 54 lottery visas out of a global total of 50,000 and only 1,906 green cards. There is little option for these people other than a new agreement which will help them out of this predicament. I do not need to stress the urgency of this issue. The window of opportunity for these people is closing rapidly and will soon be firmly shut. The US Government's momentum is faltering and the issue is unlikely to be progressed by the current administration. If we wait until after the forthcoming presidential election it will be too late. The topic of immigration reform is so charged in the United States that it is regarded as a third rate issue which nobody will touch for fear of political electrocution. Senior US Senators are willing to progress it but their hands are tied unless the Irish Government steps up to campaign for these people. It is almost certain that under the next administration there will be no movement on the immigration issue, so we have to act while limited time is still available to solve the crisis facing Irish people in the US.

There is no doubt that the Irish-American connection has always been strong, both culturally and economically. At this time of economic growth in Ireland, well-educated and highly skilled Americans are expressing a growing interest in working in Ireland. When the former Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Killeen, visited a FÁS exhibition in New York last October, he noted huge interest in Americans wishing to travel to Ireland to work and a queue outside the exhibition venue which stretched more than two and a half blocks. He stated there was clear evidence to support the establishment of some sort of bilateral agreement between the US and Irish Governments. In addition, the Aisling Irish Community Centre in New York has indicated they are dealing with increasing numbers of Irish people. This kind of labour activity in Ireland and the United States is proof that a bilateral agreement providing for a renewable visa system is the way to capture the interest in the Irish economy and solve the problem Irish emigrants face in America.

The opportunity now presents itself of harnessing the goodwill that has been developed during the peace process to secure a bilateral agreement between Ireland and the United States. Precedence has been set for this kind of agreement by Australia's arrangement which allows 10,000 Australians to work in the US on a special E-3 visa, while Americans are given the same number of visas in return. This two-year visa can be renewed indefinitely, allows immigrants to bring spouses and children to the US and permits spouses to work legally. A similar agreement could be developed for Irish workers, including an amnesty clause to allow undocumented Irish to gain access to the visa programme. It has been suggested that by arguing that many of the undocumented in the US were victims of high unemployment caused by the Troubles, the Government could make a unique case for a new visa regime. The upcoming economic conference in Belfast sponsored by the Americans is the perfect opportunity to launch such an agreement and would provide a forum for officially recognising the American contribution to peace on the island of Ireland while marking the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Last April, the Minister indicated his intention to do all in his power to help these people. He stated that since becoming Minister for Foreign Affairs, he made the search for a resolution to the situation facing the undocumented a key priority for his Department, that the nation cannot turn its back on the undocumented Irish living in a twilight world in the United States and that we must do all we can to reunite these families. When he visited Washington last month, he again indicated his interest in reaching a reciprocal agreement with the United States that would be linked to the political settlement in the North. Has this been political rhetoric designed to impress while he was on tour in Washington or is he genuinely committed to resolving this issue? What communications has he had with US representatives in past weeks regarding this issue and what exactly has been done to find a resolution?

I am not speaking for the people in this country but for the undocumented in the United States, some of whom I met last week. It was not the first time I visited the USA. On many occasions, my colleagues, Deputies McGinley, Coveney, Connaughton and I have travelled there at our own cost to lobby for these people. I am saying to the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Government backbenchers that we owe it to Irish citizens to reach an agreement. America preaches that it will look after its people wherever in the world they may be. We have to look after the Irish people who find themselves in this situation. The taxpayer will not mind if the Taoiseach, the Minister and, perhaps, the Leader of the Opposition and other of our colleagues use the Government jet to travel to America to lobby Irish-American politicians. They want to support us but political will is needed to reach out to them. I urge the Taoiseach to personally visit the USA before the weekend to reach a deal for our Irish illegals. That is not an impossible task because Ted Kennedy and other US Senators are prepared to support the Irish families who are affected by this issue.

I do not want to see another situation like the one involving a woman in my constituency who, five years ago, came to my clinic in Ballinrobe, and that is when I got involved in this issue. Until the day I die I will never forget what she said to me. At that time I did not know much about undocumented Irish people in America. She said:

Michael, I have gone to America for the last five years. My son is there. He is married and has two children. I go to see them whenever I can. Last week I got bad news. I have cancer. I know that my son, his wife and my grandchildren will not be able to come to my funeral in Ireland.

I said:

That is not right. We have to do something for these people that are undocumented in America. We have to put the pressure on the Irish Government.

That woman died and her son could not come home for her funeral. If he had come to his mother's funeral he faced the possibility of not being able to get back into the United States of America, to his wife and two children. We must do something about that. It is our duty as legislators to act. I call on the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to act. I accept, because I am not one of those people who does not give credit where it is due, that the Government has made an effort, but what we want now is a bigger effort. This is an all-Ireland problem and, if necessary, Mr. Paisley, Mr. McGuinness and the Tánaiste should lobby on behalf of our Irish citizens. I call on them to go to the United States and do what has to be done.

I have been contacted by people from all parts of the country. We are coming into a very lonely time again — Christmas. Many of these people in the United States will not be able to come home for Christmas, family weddings or funerals. It is important that the Taoiseach and the Government are committed to going there to resolve this very serious problem.

I thank Mr. Niall O'Dowd, Mr. Ciaran Staunton and others involved in the Irish immigration group on behalf of the Irish people. I thank them on behalf of the undocumented in America because they are in the United States legally, running their own businesses and they could be doing other things. Instead, they are committed to Ireland, to our citizens and to striking a deal. People such as Mr. O'Dowd and Mr. Staunton have gone to a lot of trouble.

Mr. Niall O'Dowd went to a very important committee meeting in the United States. It is very difficult to get into a Senate meeting and be given time to speak. The meeting was broadcast by American television. RTE should have been there as well, covering the case that Mr. O'Dowd made on behalf of the undocumented Irish. RTE has done a good job on this issue but it is important to keep up the momentum. The broadcaster should send people to America to show the kind of situations in which our people are trapped.

The Government has accepted the motion and I hope the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs will immediately head for Washington. We must remember that Mr. Albert Reynolds did it when it was important for the peace process. He picked up the telephone and rang President Clinton. I urge the Taoiseach to pick up the telephone and ring President Bush. American politicians are facing a presidential election and every single one of them will be telling us about their great Irish ancestors. If they have great Irish ancestors, let them prove it. Let us complete a bilateral agreement for our Irish citizens who are trapped in the United States of America. Please God, between now and Christmas, a Bill will be rushed through Congress and something will be done for our undocumented Irish. Something must be done. I want something to be done. I want the Irish Government to immediately head for Washington.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this motion. I compliment my colleague, Deputy Ring, on tabling the motion and welcome the Government's decision to support an agreed motion on this very important issue. By adopting that stance, the Government will have the mandate of this House to go to America to negotiate on behalf of the 40,000 or 50,000 undocumented Irish men and women who are in the United States without status.

By adopting this agreed motion, we are changing our approach to this problem. For a significant number of years our approach has been to go to America and meet politicians from various parties. As Deputy Ring said, in the summer of 2006, Deputies Ring, Coveney, Connaughton and I went to America. At that time, all of the talk was about the McCain-Kennedy Bill. That was a serious Bill, tabled by two senior politicians, one a Republican, the other a Democrat. We had the pleasure and honour of meeting them in their offices, with other senior politicians. We came home with great hopes that this was the solution to the problem of the undocumented Irish. Unfortunately, the Bill ran into difficultiesvis-à-vis American domestic politics. Parties fell out, squabbles set in and the Irish were, once again, left sitting high and dry.

This motion represents a new approach to the situation whereby we will adopt what is known as the Australian solution. Australia, on a bilateral basis, has negotiated a deal whereby 10,000 Australians are entitled to enter the United States of America annually and the same number of Americans are entitled to enter Australia.

I do not know of any other people who have contributed more to the making of America than the Irish. For two centuries, our people have been going to the United States as a destination of opportunity. They have grabbed the opportunities there and Irish people are now involved in every aspect of American life. It is no wonder that more than 40 million Americans claim to have Irish ancestors. The bonds between the two countries have developed over the centuries. I do not know of any other European country in which the Americans have invested more than in Ireland. There is probably more American investment and employment here than in any other European country. I do not know of any other country whose representatives have regular access to the highest echelons of Government in the United States. Those doors are open to us and we are seen by the United States as one of their foremost and dependable allies. No matter what they do, they know they have our goodwill and that our facilities are at their disposal.

This is a window of opportunity for us, to invoke the goodwill of America on behalf of the Irish people over there, many of whom we met last year. I will not go into their individual stories. Deputy Ring mentioned people who are not able to come home for family occasions, both joyous and sad. These people are not a burden on the American economy. Rather, America's gain is our loss. Many have settled in America, established businesses, married, had families and have a stake in the American economy, but they are living in fear and danger.

I suggest we emulate the Australians. The Australian Prime Minister, Mr. Howard went to the United States, spent two days in Washington negotiating at President to Prime Minister level and succeeded in striking a deal. That is what we must do. I believe that the only person in this House to do it is the Taoiseach and he certainly has a mandate from this House this evening. He always goes to Washington for St. Patrick's Day but I urge him to enter negotiations before then. It should be done before the end of this year. I implore the Minister of State to convey that message to the Taoiseach, to urge him to do as Deputy Ring has suggested and go to America with the sole mission of sorting out this running sore between our two countries that has been there for many years. I have absolutely no doubt that will be done given the goodwill and co-operation between us.

Many Irish parents are listening to this debate. They will be reassured there is cross-party agreement on this motion instigated by Deputy Ring. I very much welcome that because it will give them hope. The US presidential election is coming up shortly and the focus will once again be on domestic politics. If we do not grab this opportunity between now and the end of this month, or certainly the end of this year, we will lose it for many years to come until the political situation settles again.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak. The time is ripe for action. We are changing tactics and are opting for a new method, namely, the Australian one. If we go about it the right way and if we show the Americans we are serious about it at Taoiseach and President level, we will solve this long running problem.

What better gift could Members of this House give these Irish people in America — our kith and kin — than a green card as a result of this motion and negotiations which will take place? It would be a great Christmas present. I can only imagine the number of people who would come home again to their parents and relations after five to 15 years in America and the welcome they would receive. We can do something definite and positive and this motion is the instrument by which we can do so. I implore the Minister of State to adopt this motion and for the Taoiseach to make it a priority between now and the end of the year.

I very much welcome this motion and compliment Deputy Ring on tabling it. I welcome it not only because it has been proposed by Fine Gael but because it proposes the basis for a much needed solution to the problem of the undocumented Irish in the US. The undocumented Irish make a valuable contribution to the economic and social life of the United States. They have chosen to make their life there yet within the US, their lifestyles are marked by a permanent state of anxiety. They face significant hardship and their plight gets harder by the day. They are seriously restricted in their options for working and earning a living. They cannot return home to see their families, attend funerals or weddings or to visit their elderly parents or seriously ill family members. That has a huge impact on a large number of people who cannot come home for important family occasions often following tragedy.

I look forward to the day when the many undocumented Irish, having established some form of legal status in the US, have the legal right to live there, to work in any job of their choice and to travel freely to visit parents, family and friends. I spoke to Mayor Bloomberg, New York's first citizen, when he visited Ireland. He spoke very openly and was one of the first politicians to call for this situation to be resolved. As Deputy Ring stated, there are 40 million members of the diaspora in the United States. In the next 12 months, there will be a change of president and there is a possibility that Mayor Bloomberg could be a candidate in that race. This will be an election issue. This motion should be well received by the US authorities because of the opportunity it offers to young US citizens to visit and work in Ireland.

The motion refers to an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 undocumented Irish people living and working in the US which is an appalling situation, the difficulties the undocumented face of which I know, the contribution Irish emigrants make to the US economy which is evident everywhere one goes, the strong economic ties between the island of Ireland and the United States and the growing level of social, political and economic co-operation on the island of Ireland following the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. It also refers to the existing bilateral agreement between Australia and the USA which allows 10,000 Australians to work in the US annually while US citizens are granted the same number of Australian visas in return. These are critical points.

Formal educational institutions are part of the process of developing capable and responsible citizens and thus building a successful country. However, in an era of globalisation of trade in goods and services, students must also learn about other cultures and people. The university of life is the best place to get this particular experience. Living abroad will give US students a depth of personal experience that cannot be matched by reading, studying, e-mails or the Internet. Typical overseas study programmes are too short and too organised for students to really learn about other countries, people, traditions and cultures. For third level students, it is a time for freedom, openness and curiosity about other people and places and for embracing new experiences.

Spending a year in Ireland, being thrust into the unfamiliar and living as the locals do will give them knowledge, experience and an understanding of people which will last them a lifetime. By living and working independently, they will emerge with a much richer understanding and a more open-minded view of the world than anything taught in a classroom.

Young US citizens living and working in Ireland would also have the opportunity to visit other parts of Europe thus expanding their horizons to a much wider range of countries and cultures. Living and working abroad is not only about understanding a new culture, it is also about getting a new perspective on one's home country. Seeing things from a distance gives an opportunity to appreciate all the good things at home. The mix of ideas and experiences will help foster the imagination to see new opportunities and provide an inspiration for fresh ideas and creativity. This is a win-win result for both our countries.

The bilateral agreement proposed in this motion provides an important opportunity to enhance and strengthen ties of understanding and friendship between the US and Ireland. I look forward to the conclusion of such an agreement at the earliest possible date.

I commend Deputy Ring on tabling this motion and, along with Deputy McGinley and others who travelled to the United States, for being so forthright in fighting for this cause. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the plight of Irish emigrants living in the United States. This is an issue about which I feel very strongly and about which many of my constituents are deeply concerned. At present we have no way of knowing how many Irish emigrants live in the United States. Many left when Ireland's growth was not as strong as it is at present. I worry that since our economy has improved, we have become less aware of the problems they face. I strongly recommend that the Minister for Foreign Affairs makes this issue a priority over the coming months. The Australian system, whereby a bilateral agreement was reached between Australia and America, would be incredibly effective in regard to this country. I urge the Minister to look at it and to see it as a positive way to move forward because it is has been tried and it works.

The recent figures speak for themselves. Ireland received 10% fewer green cards in 2006 than in 2005 and 28% fewer lottery visas in 2006 than in 2005. This is not because Irish people are not anxious to go to America but we have not been successful in getting there legally. There are still thousands of young Irish people who would like to follow the Irish tradition of leaving for America to make their life in that exciting country. We no longer view emigration as a tragedy. It is of great benefit to the many young people who travel there and a great education to them.

Driving licences for these emigrants is a major issue. Anybody who knows anything about American life knows that one can barely function there without having a car and being able to drive yet driving licences are being taken from Irish emigrants making their lives in America extremely difficult.

There is a rule whereby if one goes to America to start a business and invest a certain amount of money, one can get a visa. The Irish people contribute to the economy there just as American people in Ireland contribute to the Irish economy. The connection between both countries can be seen in their respective labour forces. The United States has had a profound cultural influence on this country, as exemplified by its role in the peace process in Northern Ireland. The duty of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the priority of the Government should be to make things happen to ensure that the undocumented Irish can live contentedly. We have all heard stories from our constituents about people who have genuine cases to make. I beg the Government to help these vulnerable people by heeding their calls.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Ring, on introducing it. I also congratulate the Government on agreeing to accept Deputy Ring's proposal. I would like to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, about the green cards of people who have returned to Ireland. I refer to people who intend to stay here — they may have new careers here, for example. Can an agreement be reached with the US Government for the green cards of such people to be given to those who have applied for residency? Perhaps the system could be voluntary. Some people with green cards have established very good careers in Ireland and will never return to the US. As they still have their green cards, they have retained the ability to return to live in the US. I ask the Minister of State to consider this approach, under which those who have returned to Ireland could identify themselves and make their green cards available. If a system of exchange could be agreed with the US Government, those cards could be transferred to people who have applied for residency in that country. This mechanism would meet a small proportion of the need that exists among the 25,000 to 50,000 Irish immigrants who are living and working in the US without documentation.

A great deal of pain is being endured by the undocumented Irish and their families. I regularly hear from constituents of mine who are sad because their sons or daughters in the US are unable to return to Ireland to attend a family wedding, for example. It is even sadder when Irish people living in the US cannot come home for the funerals of their parents. The pain felt by the families involved, especially by the undocumented person who has to stay in the US while these events take place, is very intense. The human aspect of this issue is often lost during the debate on it. We must impress on the US Government the contribution that has been made to that country's economy by emigrants who went there from Ireland centuries ago. Some of my grandparents' siblings went to the US to contribute to the development of that country. It should be recognised that all families in Ireland have similar stories. We should remind the 40 million Irish-Americans who comprise the Irish diaspora in the US that they have a role to play as well. Irish-Americans should remind their fellow Americans of the special relationship the US has enjoyed with Ireland and the Irish people since the 18th century, well before the Famine.

I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Ring, on introducing this timely motion. I also congratulate the Government on accepting the need for consensus on this issue. This is a difficult time for the friends and family of Irish people who are living in the United States, in places like Dorchester and Brighton in Boston; and Yonkers and The Bronx in New York. I have spent time in Upper Darby in Philadelphia. Undocumented Irish are also found on the west coast, in places like San Francisco, and as far north as Chicago. For the first time, these people are living in fear. In the 1980s, they saw the cities I have mentioned as places of affluence and opportunity, but they have told me they now associate them with fear. I receive text messages and e-mails to that effect on a daily basis.

I heard today that ten undocumented Irish people are being kept in detention centres after being lifted by US security personnel at train stations 150 miles from the Canadian border. The people in question did not even go near the border. Legislators on both sides of this House have to stand up and be counted as we try to assist Irish people who are living in fear. As Deputy Ring said, if a deputation is to be sent to the US, it should include Dr. Ian Paisley and Mr. Martin McGuinness so we can demonstrate our collective opinion that this is a serious problem.

We all heard about the good stories and the opportunities which were available in the US between the 1950s and the 1980s. The stories we are hearing now should make us sick. The undocumented Irish in the US are afraid to be part of this campaign. Their fear of being deported is making them afraid to show their hand. This is something we should not allow to happen. If a new visa programme is to be established, our immediate concern should be for the people to whom I have referred. We have to find a means of ensuring they are not prevented from coming forward by their fear of being deported. I encounter that sentiment frequently when I communicate with people throughout the US.

Ireland has a rich experience of mutual co-operation with the US on serious problems like Northern Ireland. When consensus was reached on the Good Friday Agreement, there was collective goodwill on both sides of the Border. In this instance, there is collective goodwill on both sides of the Atlantic. My Fine Gael colleagues have spent time in the US talking to Senators, Congressmen and legislators who have an equal desire to do something about this problem. We do not have to play hardball. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Tánaiste do not have to play hardball on this issue. They have to show goodwill, courage and short-term thinking so that progress can be made sooner rather than later.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate Deputy Ring on introducing this timely motion. We all know what has happened in the US since the tragic events of 11 September 2001 and the introduction of the REAL ID Act. The US Government now requires one in all states to produce driving licences which prove that one has US citizenship or the right to stay in the US. The new laws affect many Irish people, including my constituents from County Clare, some of whom are afraid to show off their saffron and blue county colours in case they draw attention to themselves. That is how serious the situation is at the moment. When I pass through Shannon Airport, I often see a picture of John F. Kennedy waving goodbye as he left Ireland in 1963. If the current US immigration laws had been in force when his great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, left Ireland, John F. Kennedy would never have been President of the United States — that is the funny thing about it.

Anyone who has been to the US recently will have seen signs calling on the US Administration to legislate in support of the undocumented Irish. When I see such signs, I am reminded that most of those who went from Ireland to the US many generations ago never came back. The same thing could happen again. Deputy Ring spoke about men and women who cannot come back to Ireland for funerals. I have heard of a case of a man who had to listen to his father's funeral on a mobile telephone because he could not return to this country. It is unacceptable that well educated young men and women have to hide in US cities. Irish people are being treated badly even though the Irish heritage of many American people is paraded annually on St. Patrick's Day, when the biggest parades take place in the US. The talk now in Gaelic Park in New York is not about hurling, camogie or football; it is about the crackdown on the illegal Irish. They stay illegally in America because they cannot get a long-term visa or a green card — which is virtually impossible to get. As Deputy Hayes stated, in 2006 only 54 lottery visas and 1,906 green cards out of a total of 50,000 were given to the Irish. People such as Niall O'Dowd must be congratulated for their Trojan work ensuring that the Irish voice is heard in the immigration debate in the United States. The comprehensive immigration reform Act 2007 would have provided legal status to many of the illegal Irish residing in America and the Bill was supported by many high profile Senators but unfortunately it did not go through.

I am delighted the Government has accepted this motion. I urge the Government to include these proposals to extend the US customs and border protection facility for Shannon Airport as it would require the adoption of a US-Irish intergovernmental treaty. I urge the Government to work towards this treaty as soon as possible because it would allow passengers travelling to the United States to be regarded as domestic passengers once they leave the Irish base.

With the agreement of the House I wish to share time with Deputy Scanlon.

I am delivering this statement on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs Deputy Dermot Ahern. This debate provides a welcome opportunity for this House to highlight the difficulties facing the undocumented Irish in the United States, the Government's strong record of engagement on their behalf and our continued determination to work for a solution. I am pleased, therefore, to commend this motion to the House.

Members of the Oireachtas from all parties have taken an active interest in this issue. By travelling to Washington to lobby on behalf of the undocumented, many Members of this House have sent an important message of solidarity to this marginalised group. The Government deeply appreciates the added value that these visits have brought to its own intense lobbying campaign.

In October 2005, the Dáil and Seanad passed all-party motions expressing strong support for efforts to find a solution which would enable the undocumented to regularise their status and travel freely between the United States and Ireland. A strong bipartisan spirit was evident during those debates. There was a coming together of politicians from all sides to support a group of our people living lives of great fear and uncertainty abroad and I welcome in particular Deputy Ring's comments in this regard.

I regret some recent efforts to politicise this sensitive issue. Last week's suggestion by Deputy Kenny that Senator Edward Kennedy was waiting for a phone call from the Taoiseach simply misrepresented the position. Indeed, just a few short weeks ago, the Senator and the Minister for Foreign Affairs had a detailed strategy session on possible options to move the immigration issue forward. This shows clearly how wrong the Deputy's remark was but I do not wish to dwell on this aspect.

The tradition in this House, for which I pay warm tribute to all sides, has been not to play politics in any way with the hopes and aspirations of the thousands of undocumented Irish. I hope that over the next two days we can re-emphasise this traditional bipartisan approach. I particularly welcome therefore this agreed motion. I know the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, intends holding a briefing session with the members of the relevant Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. I will bring Deputy Neville's remarks on the subject of green cards to the attention of the Minister. Green cards are given on an individual basis and not on the basis of nationality so I do not believe they are transferable.

For the past decade the Government has attached the highest priority to assisting our emigrant communities abroad. For far too long our national psyche was scarred by the loss of generations of young people to emigration. Shattered communities throughout Ireland were left bereft of the energy and creativity of so many young people who had gone abroad to find the sort of opportunities this country could not provide or who were disadvantaged as a result of the troubles of the past 30 years.

While our recent prosperity should be celebrated by all Irish people, we must never forget the searing pain of loss and loneliness suffered by those who were forced to leave our shores and those they left behind. Without the sacrifices and achievements of our emigrants and their willingness to remain engaged with this country, the confident and successful modern Ireland of today would not exist.

We are especially proud of the vital contribution made by Irish communities abroad, in particular Irish-Americans, to the development of the peace process and the growth of our economy. Reaching out to and assisting our emigrant communities is a cornerstone of Government policy. We have added real substance to this commitment. The establishment of the Irish abroad unit within the Department of Foreign Affairs has greatly enhanced our capacity to develop and implement policies aimed at building relations and providing practical and financial assistance to our communities overseas.

Funding to groups working with our vulnerable emigrants has never been higher. In 2007, the Department's financial support for emigrant services has reached over €15 million. This is the highest amount ever allocated by any Government and represents an increase of 26% over last year and a 15-fold increase since 1997. This engagement with the Irish communities abroad will continue in the years to come.

Irish people have a special connection with the United States. The last US census recorded that 36 million people consider themselves to be Irish-American. The enormous contribution made by generations of Irish emigrants to the development of that great nation is something all Irish people should take pride in. Their achievements are an integral part of the American story and touch communities in every state.

Today our relationship is evolving and it is no longer defined solely by the emigrant experience. Fortunately, Irish people no longer have to move to the US in search of work and thousands of our citizens who have lived in America for many years have now returned here. Almost half a million visits are made by Irish people to the US each year, putting us within the top ten countries providing visitors. The phenomenon of thousands of Irish people travelling to New York at this time of year for Christmas shopping is very revealing about the nature of our relationship and the distance we have come since the depressing days of mass emigration.

Our two countries are building a mutually beneficial partnership in the 21st century. This is particularly true in the economic field where our ties are stronger than ever before. The United States is our second largest trading partner and is the largest source of our inward investment. This investment is increasingly two way as Irish direct investment in the US is now very significant and is estimated at about $17 billion. Irish companies are also employing tens of thousands of American workers.

However, our undocumented community in the United States is largely removed and marginalised from these exciting developments. A precise figure for the number caught in this situation is impossible to ascertain. Official US Government estimates put the figure at only 3,000 while others suggest it could be as high as 50,000. Based on assessments by our embassy and consulates, the Government believes the true figure is probably closer to 25,000. However, we have never spent much time dwelling on the numbers: we take the firm view that where there are Irish people in difficulty abroad, we have a duty to offer support and assistance, regardless of the number.

The majority of the undocumented Irish have lived in the US for many years. Like generations of previous Irish emigrants, they work hard, raise families and make an important contribution to the economic and social life of their communities. Yet, they live in the shadows of society and fear and uncertainty are their constant companions. Most also suffer greatly from the pain of not being able to travel to Ireland without being denied re-entry to the United States. As a result, they are forced to miss the funerals, weddings and other significant events in the lives of loved ones back in Ireland. This in turn imposes a considerable burden on their families here, often including elderly parents.

A few in this country would pass harsh judgment on this community. They argue that the undocumented do not deserve our support and sympathy and that they should simply return to Ireland. Such analysis is callous and shallow. Many of the undocumented Irish moved to the US at a time when Ireland's economy was not so successful and when US border security and enforcement was not as high a priority as it is now in this post 9/11 world. They began to work, to settle down and to raise families. While they remain fiercely proud of the land of their birth, most now regard America as their home. The undocumented Irish also help to keep long-standing Irish communities in parts of New York, Boston and San Francisco vibrant and successful. Without their presence, the sense of Irishness in these places will begin to fade.

The Government has been steadfast in its commitment to these people. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and other Ministers, have used every possible opportunity to advocate on their behalf. In his meetings with President Bush, the Taoiseach has stressed the importance of this issue to the Government and made it a central theme of his St. Patrick's week Washington visits. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has made the plight of the undocumented one of his key priorities and has visited the United States almost 20 times during the past three years to lobby for reform.

Ultimately, of course, we cannot dictate US legislation. However, the Government is determined to continue to use all its influence to ensure that the undocumented can live in the US free from fear. At the same time, we are deeply aware that immigration is a sensitive and divisive issue in the US. Post the events of 11 September 2001, governments have an absolute obligation to protect and preserve the integrity and security of their borders.

The presence in the US of 11 million undocumented persons presents enormous social, economic and security challenges. Intense political debate has raged for many years on how to deal with the consequences of this reality. There are those in America who feel strongly that any legislation which seeks to legalise the undocumented is tantamount to rewarding law-breaking and will only encourage a further influx of illegal immigrants. Others maintain that these 11 million people are doing jobs that American workers are not prepared to do and that it would be neither logistically possible nor morally correct to deport so many people.

Regardless of their position on the issue, the vast majority of Americans and their politicians agree that the US immigration system is broken and needs remedy. The Government strongly supported the comprehensive and bipartisan solution proposed by Senators Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and John McCain of Arizona. Their legislation, if enacted, would have enabled the vast majority of the undocumented, including our citizens, to regularise their status, travel freely to and from the US and, ultimately, secure a path to permanent residence. It would also have provided extensive opportunities for new immigrants to work in the country. This broad approach was strongly supported by President Bush.

Various versions of this legislation were considered in Congress over the past two years. One such version passed the US Senate in 2006, but did not achieve sufficient support in the House of Representatives and could not, therefore, become law. Further efforts earlier this year by the US Senate to pass similar legislation ended in failure. It is now widely accepted that no further serious effort will be made to pass comprehensive reform until after the 2008 US presidential election.

During the past two years, we worked closely with Senators Kennedy and McCain and the Bush Administration to advance their comprehensive approach to immigration reform. We strongly believe that their legislation represented the best opportunity to resolve the situation facing the undocumented Irish.

The Government was deeply disappointed by this failure to make progress; it represented a serious setback. I place on record the Government's deep appreciation to Senators Kennedy and McCain and Ireland's many friends in Congress for their leadership on this issue and for their support of the Irish community. The Government has consistently made clear that if efforts to pass comprehensive reform legislation were unsuccessful, we would explore all possible alternative options. These options include a bilateral solution.

Last month the Minister for Foreign Affairs travelled to Washington for an extensive round of discussions with key players involved in immigration. During the visit, he explored the possibility of a bilateral approach in meetings with Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, Secretary for Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Charles Schumer, Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Lindsey Graham and the Friends of Ireland Group in the House of Representatives. There remains a strong sense in Washington that immigration reform will remain a highly divisive and difficult issue for the foreseeable future. While US political leaders fully acknowledge that the number of undocumented Irish is extremely small in the overall context, there is a reluctance to single out one particular group of undocumented for preferential treatment.

However, some important progress was made during the Minister's visit and our ambassador in Washington has been asked to take forward a number of bilateral possibilities in his contacts with the US Administration and Congress. These include possible reciprocal initiatives for young people; long-term non-immigrant opportunities for Irish people interested in working on a non-immigrant basis in the US and for Americans interested in employment here; and, most important, solutions for the situation facing the undocumented.

Deputies will appreciate that the details of these proposals and discussions will have a better prospect of success if taken forward in private. The Minister will of course keep the House informed of any progress made.

There is no doubt that improved immigration arrangements between Ireland and the United States would more accurately reflect and further enhance the dynamic nature of our modern relationship. New arrangements would provide much needed opportunities for future flows of migration between our countries and would help prevent the emergence of future generations of undocumented Irish. In a very real way, it would also help to foster a culture of compliance with current immigration laws.

The traffic would certainly not be all one way. A FÁS jobs event in New York in 2006 attracted thousands of young Americans keen to explore the possibility of working and travelling in Ireland. Achieving bilateral immigration arrangements between the two countries is not an easy task. US immigration law is extremely complex and attempts to amend it in favour of one particular group are politically very sensitive. No matter how well disposed US politicians are towards Ireland, passing immigration legislation in Congress is highly fraught and watched very closely by other immigrants groups. However, the Government will make every effort to succeed. Some Members of this House make frequent reference to the current visa arrangements between the US and Australia which permit Australian citizens with certain qualifications to work in the US. It is suggested that a similar arrangement should be made available to Irish citizens. I remind Deputies that this visa scheme is not available to undocumented Australian citizens and would do nothing to alleviate the suffering of our undocumented community if passed for all Irish citizens. When commenting on this sensitive issue, it is vital that we do not raise false expectations among the undocumented and their families.

It is important during this debate that we pay a special tribute to those undocumented who have campaigned so hard and effectively for reform. They have not sat back and bemoaned their fate. They have not waited for a leg up or a hand out. They have remained positive and hopeful. Despite the risks, they decided to mobilise, to come out of the shadows and make their voice heard.

In December 2005, the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform was formed in New York and was quickly embraced by the undocumented as an effective tool for change. With tremendous energy and determination, they raised awareness of their plight by organising rallies throughout the US. In March 2006, thousands of undocumented Irish climbed into buses in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere. After travelling through the night, they arrived in Washington DC wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan "Legalise the Irish". The undocumented made a powerful and lasting impression on Capitol Hill. This remarkable act of lobbying earned the attention and respect of many of the most powerful political figures in America. So effective was the campaign, that the t-shirts became one of the most sought after items in Congress.

By organising all over the US, by travelling to Washington and by making their case with sensitivity and respect, these remarkable people changed the nature of the debate. Some key political figures in the US Congress maintain that lobbying by the Government and the Irish community was directly responsible for bringing Congress closer to enacting comprehensive reform than it had been for many years. The Government has been proud to work closely with the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, including during the visit of the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to New York and Washington last month, and has contributed more than $185,000 to the organisation.

Of course, the undocumented feel frustrated that despite all our collective efforts, the ultimate prize of legalisation remains elusive. This community is no longer alone. It has found renewed hope and pride from within; its voice and concerns have been heard clearly in Ireland and America; it has formed an important and lasting bond with this Government and, working together, we have brought forward the day when its sought after prize of reform will be achieved.

Like other Deputies I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to this debate because there is no doubt this issue affects every county, city, town and village right across the whole country. Deputies are aware that immigration reform is one of the most contentious and high profile political issues in the US. There are strong views on both sides of the argument not only in Congress and state legislatures but also in business, the trade union movement and US society in general.

On 17 May a bipartisan coalition of US Senators, including Senator Kennedy, reached what was characterised as a grand compromise on comprehensive immigration reform. However, regrettably it did not prove possible to move the Bill to a final vote on that occasion. Subsequently President Bush went to the Congress on 12 June to meet the Republican senators. Following that meeting he announced his support for a $4.4 billion initiative to strengthen border security. The Democratic leader in the Senate and his Republican counterpart then announced that the reform Bill would be brought back to the Senate floor. On 26 June the Senate voted to proceed with a debate on the Bill. We welcomed this as an encouraging advance. However, securing the necessary bipartisan consensus to deliver on this complex and diverse matter always constituted a considerable challenge. Unfortunately, as we now know, the compromise Bill failed to attract sufficient support.

This was a major disappointment and a setback for the thousands of undocumented Irish people in the United States and their families in Ireland. Given the present difficult and divided environment in Congress on immigration, it is now widely considered that such comprehensive legislation is unlikely to return to Congress in a meaningful way in advance of the next US presidential and congressional elections. In the aftermath of this disappointment, the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, made clear his determination to actively review the situation and explore possible alternative options, including bilateral arrangements.

In the months since the collapse of the comprehensive reform Bill the Department of Foreign Affairs and the embassy in Washington have been engaged in a wide range of consultations with congressional, administration and Irish community figures to assess how best to proceed. The Minister recently visited the United States to discuss the situation with senior members of the Administration and some of the key players in Congress. In this regard among those with whom he had meetings were the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky, and Senators Edward Kennedy, Charles Schumer, Patrick Leahy and Lindsey Graham as well as the House of Representatives Friends of Ireland group. While they all emphasised the present difficult environment for making progress on immigration reform in Congress, they were very willing to work with us to explore further possible ways to resolve the position of our undocumented citizens. This work is being pursued by the ambassador and his staff in Washington and will be reviewed by the Minister on an ongoing basis.

The Minister had a detailed discussion on the matter with the Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, and he had a meeting with members of our undocumented community in New York. Unfortunately Senator Kennedy has been ill and the meeting between the two Senators has yet to take place. While our embassy in Washington is in close contact with both offices, it reports it is too early to ascertain whether the proposal will gain traction.

Our sustained political contacts have been further strengthened by the mobilisation of the Irish community behind the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, a highly effective group which we are pleased to support, including financially. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York told Niall O'Dowd a number of weeks ago that he might be prepared to support legislation that would set aside several thousand working visas each year for Irish citizens, including the undocumented. He suggested the scheme also be made available to citizens of one or two Hispanic countries to avoid accusations that it was a deal for white Europeans only. Senator Schumer agreed to discuss the proposal with Senator Kennedy before deciding how best to proceed.

Since 11 September 2001, there has been a dramatic change in the security climate in the US. Tighter border security measures, being unable to travel home for fear of being refused re-entry and difficulties in obtaining licences all serve to increase the pressure on undocumented Irish who are effectively living in a kind of twilight zone. We do not want our people marginalised further. Together with their families here at home they are increasingly feeling the strain. Emigration always had a central place in the Irish experience and as a result we are so far removed from our past that we are willing to turn a blind eye to our young ones and emigrants who now find themselves in unfortunate and difficult circumstances. We have established a dedicated unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs focused entirely on matters related to the Irish abroad. It is helping to drive progress on this range of issues. A further reflection of the Government's commitment is clear from the substantially increased funding to groups supporting our vulnerable community abroad. Funding is now more than eight times greater than it was in 1997.

I wish to comment on what Deputy Breen said about President John F. Kennedy. If the same laws were in place when his ancestors moved to America many years ago as exist now he would never have become President of the United States and his brother would not be a Senator.

And we would not be confusing George Bernard Shaw's quotations.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this extremely important issue. It is an issue that can regularly be forgotten in today's economic climate. As there is such a change in economic circumstances, people are no longer forced to leave the country to find gainful employment, to rear a family and to have an outlook on life to allow them to live out their lives with dignity. We need to lobby extensively to ensure the problem is resolved once and for all. It is critical to remember not just those who were forced to travel to the United States, but also their families who are separated from them in such a painful way. As many of us are starting to plan for Christmas, many families here will not be able to see their loved ones as a result of the situation that prevails in the United States.

I welcome the fact that this is an agreed motion. No party, politician or individual has a monopoly on good ideas or on the process to resolve this issue. There has been a very good bipartisan approach to the lobbying that has taken place. I am delighted that it will continue in this session. While there are difficulties in the United States, it is primarily a problem that the Oireachtas through the Minister and the Taoiseach will need to continue to pursue with the legislature in the United States to ensure resolution of the situation once and for all.

There is a particular genesis to tonight's motion and its bilateral approach. In his speech the Minister of State clearly identified that following the Australian model does not guarantee that the undocumented problem will be solved, as the Australian model does not account for the undocumented Irish. Anything we do now should reflect clearly on those affected rather than on those who might wish to travel to the United States in the future. It is important to reach a comprehensive agreement or deal that caters for the people currently affected and their families. We need to be careful not to create a false sense of hope by giving priority to this bilateral approach. The effect of our support for this element should not give false hope to the people directly affected on the ground in the United States or their families here at home. We must strive to resolve the problem in the most comprehensive way possible.

I compliment the efforts of many people directly involved in this House and in the US Congress. I also compliment the many people who have been involved in lobbying in Ireland and the United States. There are many small groupings of people directly affected. The parents and siblings of the undocumented in the United States have sought to encourage debate here and have made efforts to lobby us all. There are many people from my constituency in County Clare who are directly affected by the issue. While it is a problem across the country it is particularly so in the west. The pain these people continue to suffer spurs us all on to find a resolution. I also recognise the efforts of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, in particular Niall O'Dowd, Grant Lally and Jeff Cleary. Those three people have been in this country on many occasions and have met various political groupings and other people who have an interest and are involved. They keep in regular contact with the Minister for Foreign Affairs as the Minister with direct responsibility in this regard. They continue to work with their own politicians in the United States. Both Grant Lally and Jeff Cleary are Irish-American. They could quickly put their hands in their pockets and walk away from this. They have other activities in which to be engaged but they are committed to their efforts.

It is disappointing that this problem has persisted for so long but I hope a comprehensive solution will be found. Given that 11 million immigrants are undocumented in the US of who between 25,000 and 50,000 are Irish, the Irish element is very small. For that reason, the US Administration should demonstrate goodwill to find a resolution to this problem. The undocumented Irish are by their nature hard working and they have contributed to the society in which they live and which they have helped to create. It is only right that a comprehensive approach be taken to this issue. Comprehensive immigration reform legislation is needed to ensure these people will have a right to reside in the country they have helped build.

I wish to share time with Deputy Ferris.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute again on this subject. When we last discussed it in October 2005, I believed there was cross party support for a motion that could be presented as the view of the Oireachtas at the time when there seemed to be the prospect of the McCain-Kennedy Bill having success. I was also pleased to travel as part of a delegation of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs to lobby Senators in support of the emerging legislation, complex though it was. I am pleased to support a motion on an all-party basis on behalf of the Labour Party. I am not party to the text of the Fine Gael motion or the Government adaptation of it but I am happy to contribute to something that can be issued as a statement on behalf of all Members. I hope my sharing of time will enable another party to indicate its support.

It is very important that we bear in mind continually the pain of those families who are divided. When I spoke in October 2005, I referred to the experience of emigration. Between 1955 and 1960, 250,000 people left Ireland, mostly bound for England, and, in one year, 58,000 emigrated. The major difference in US emigration, which began in the 1980s in its present volumes, was it was circulatory migration. Those who leave Ireland today have the prospect, because of many different circumstances, of returning to their families. The most painful aspect for families is that those who emigrate are cut off by the illegality of their presence in the US. The Government and its representatives must follow all the available paths. The motion suggests that a bilateral strategy be used in the short term. I support advantage being taken of the forthcoming Belfast meeting, as it would be silly not to do so. When the Kennedy-McCain proposals failed due to complex factors, magnificent rallies were held. I too pay tribute to Niall O'Dowd, Ciaran Staunton and others who organised campaigns that went on past that point.

It is important that we retain our emphasis on a comprehensive solution because dealing with new entrants into the US would not be sufficient. Some people have been out of status since the 1980s with all the perils that brings. I will not repeat all that has been said but it includes health risks, risks of not being protected under labour law and people cannot join their families for funerals and so on. It also does not include protection against one's own. Some of the cases have involved Irish people exploiting out of status Irish people.

As we approach the Belfast meeting, it will be possible to make gains on a reciprocal basis. It is important that the House accepts that we do not have to make an either-or choice. By deciding to make the best use of a reciprocal atmosphere in preparation for the Belfast meeting, one does not have to say it is being done at the cost of another strategy. The strategy should be flexible and multidimensional and that includes bearing in mind the complexity of the relationship between, for example, the proposals from Senator Schumer's office and those of Senator Kennedy. It is possible to take advantage of Senator Schumer's proposals and, at the same time, maintain the best possible relationship with Senator Kennedy, one of the most long-standing friends of Ireland. That would not be an either-or solution.

In approaching the issue of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, I do not agree with those who suggest a special case should be pursued. Advantage should be taken of the reciprocal opportunities available but it is important to bear in mind the 11 million out of status immigrants in the US have contributed to the economy and paid taxes and their labour has been used. It is a matter of right that they would be recognised. I refer to the atmosphere during the transition of the legislation from the US Senate to the House of Representatives. The view of several members of the House of Representatives was that they would take the labour of the 11 million without according rights to them. I do not support any departure from condemnation of that view. It is wrong to have any person whose labour has been used or abused in any way.

When this issue is resolved, I look forward in the short term to all-party agreement on a resolution in the House that would recognise the rights of workers, wherever they are, including those who have come here and whom we have kept for three or four years in hostel accommodation in receipt of €19 a week from the State while refusing them the right to work, and those, for example, who are sheltering in the shadows of the economy and who have said they want to participate fully in our society. I am not impressed by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who said implementing arrangements similar to those in Holland or Spain would send the right message. We have a difficulty whereby if we behave totally inconsistently and send the wrong message from the Oireachtas regarding the rights of workers, it will damage our moral position abroad.

I will not dwell on this because I want a consensus in favour of those who are out of status in the US but I would be entirely inconsistent if I did not say it. Of the 11 million out of status people in the America, approximately 25,000 are Irish when one takes the figure presented by immigration drop in centres and adjusting it downwards. When I last contributed on this issue in October 2005, the prospect of dealing with it through a lottery system was ridiculous. Ireland would have had 290 successes out of 9.5 million applicants. Something needs to be done. Opportunities exist in limited circumstances for Ireland to take advantage of what is on offer through a negotiation on Senator Schumer's proposals. It is very important that we continue our efforts. We need assurance in reply to this debate. What is being asked for is an approach that is flexible and will include and be able to take advantage of every initiative, regardless of where it originates. It is worth recalling something else as regards those great marches that took place after events in October and November 2005. What is important is the pressure on the House of Representatives. We have to think of a way of dislodging the narrow opinion that suggests people from outside the boundary of the United States can arrive, work, contribute, pay taxes, form businesses and so forth but be required to live in the shadows without rights. It is important we recognise there is pressure to be put on the House of Representatives, that there are decent people in the United State who are neither Irish nor Irish-American but who support the point I am making. That means there must be a multifaceted effort that is able to handle different opportunities within the Senate, but also one that can turn into a practical campaigning issue which will put pressure on the House of Representatives and be effective not alone on behalf of our own Irish, but also others.

I hope we will be successful but we should not wait for that moment before beginning to operate with some consistency here at home and remove the blotch in all our names as regards the way we treat people who have come to this country and who are capable of working and making a contribution.

I thank the Labour Party for the time allocated to me tonight and I commend the motion tabled by Fine Gael.

Emigration has been a feature of Irish life for generations. Very few Irish families have not been affected by emigration, with estimates indicating that more than 1.2 million people born in Ireland are living abroad. As the motion points out, there are thousands of Irish emigrants at present in the United States who have no legal status there. It is estimated that somewhere in the region of 50,000 Irish people in the US do not have legal status. That amounts to one third of all Irish-born persons living there. I do not believe there is a Deputy in the House who does not know someone who is affected by being undocumented in the US. While being undocumented may not, at first, be an issue, especially if a person only intends to stay for a short period, once roots are set down then he or she will run into enormous difficulties. This may relate to anything from a driving licence to getting married and having children. How many Irish go to America during the summer holidays? Young lads, in particular, go there to play football and stay. All those lads are at present undocumented. As a result, many people enter a twilight zone. Although they may be hard working and law abiding, in every other respect they are forced to live their lives as outlaws.

Families have been affected, where members living and settled in the United States have been unable to return to Ireland at times of serious family difficulty. The emigrants face the dilemma of damaging either the original family in Ireland or the new one in the US. Often two people without legal status are in a relationship which exacerbates the problem. For many years it appeared that the American authorities were prepared to be fairly lax in their approach to Irish immigrants. Often people were not only working, but paying tax. Of late, however, there have been several arrests. Some within Irish communities believe there is a deliberate campaign to target Irish immigrants and this has led to a good deal of fear.

Irish groups have also noted that while the numbers of young Irish arriving in the United States has fallen over the past decade and more, of late there have been signs that this trend is changing. This is possibly due to the less favourable economic climate in Ireland now compared to previous years. It is ironic that many of those leaving are taking up traditional work in construction and the bar trade that are increasingly being filled in this country by immigrants, many of who are exploited and forced to work for less than what Irish people consider to be a viable wage. All of us have experienced the displacement of Irish labour as a consequence, both internally in Ireland and as regards those forced to emigrate. Despite the numbers involved, there appears to be no sense of urgency on the issue from the Government.

Senator Schumer has come up with proposals on the issue that are supported by Irish groups in the US — which the Irish Government needs to be seen to support. I stress the Government needs to be seen to be actively behind this initiative. Unfortunately, some Irish in the US believe the Government here has been less than aggressive in pushing for this and has not put the necessary pressure on Capitol Hill. That contrasts with the attitude of the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who came to Washington to lobby on behalf of his citizens in the same position. On today's news I picked up the fact that this initiative has been successful. He went to Washington and lobbied hard on their behalf, with some success. That contrasts to the Government here which has not been forcefully exercising its prerogative in this regard.

The Government needs to ensure this becomes a priority and that the status of Irish people in the United States is secured. That can be linked to positive developments in the peace process here and the enormous fund of goodwill that exists towards Irish people in the US because of the significant contribution they have made to their adopted country, in every sphere. That is only part of the issue, however. The Government, by lobbying the US Administration to recognise the status of undocumented Irish immigrants, in a hypocritical fashion is still not addressing the issues in this State as regards the status of Irish citizens and their descendants who want to return to their homeland. That is despite the fact that Article 2 of the Constitution states:

...the Irish nation cherishes a special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.

Those who emigrated and their family members are being treated very shabbily when they want to return. The issue of returning emigrants being refused benefits under the habitual residency condition and the refusal to allow American spouses of Irish citizens the right to work and residency are creating severe hardship. There is even evidence that returning Irish are leaving this State in disgust at the treatment they and their families are receiving. Between May 2004 and April 2006, some 880 Irish people were refused social welfare payments because they did not meet the habitual residency condition. I have experienced many times the situation where returning emigrants have applied for planning permission on their family lands and been refused because they had not been resident here for a specified period of time. That is another form of discrimination which needs to be looked at and addressed.

The proposal to establish a new system governing visas between this country and the US is to be welcomed. Hopefully, this initiative will not only go a long way towards solving the dilemma faced by Irish people in the US, but also make it easier for US citizens to live and work in Ireland. This type of reciprocal action shows a measure of goodwill and is welcomed by the many Americans living in Ireland, many of whom have faced hardship because of the long waiting periods of residency and naturalisation.

The irony of all this is the refusal by the Government, while demanding regularisation and status for undocumented Irish, to consider a similar amnesty for undocumented migrants in Ireland. The Minister of State with responsibility for integration, Deputy Conor Lenihan, reiterated that position in his recent speech in the US: "You won't be seeing an amnesty in the near future. I believe it would possibly send the wrong signal." Does he not see the contradiction and hypocrisy in what he is saying? Does he not understand the message he is sending out in the United States as regards what he is prepared to do here and he expects the US to do in return?

It is about time the Government in Ireland stopped talking out of both sides of its mouth. If we are asking that Irish citizens be treated with respect in other states, which is only right and proper, then we must be prepared to treat immigrants with the same respect in this State and offer them parity of esteem.

On the question of families in limbo, national radio reported the case of a sister and brother living in New York who could not return home to Listowel for the funeral of one of their brothers who died tragically. The mother of the deceased was therefore unable to seek comfort from them. Such circumstances arise in many counties and not just in Kerry.

We need to mobilise all Irish Americans, of whom I am told there are up to 50 million, including people of influence, to work in conjunction with the Government to exert pressure and use their collective influence on the relevant authorities to resolve this problem. The onus is on the Government, in particular, to show leadership, grasp the nettle and make progress. I urge it to do so.

Debate adjourned.