It is an honour and a rare privilege for me to appear before Senators today. I know that there are many Americans who are more qualified and deserving to be here than yours truly, but none would be more honoured. Having been asked to speak about the challenging policy issues affecting the diaspora, the undocumented Irish and immigration reform, there is quite a bit to cover. There is too much perhaps, but I will try to shed some objective perspective on the issues and not to take too much time.
My story is not unique. I come from a family of Irish immigrants. My great grandparents, Patrick and Selina Cooney, left County Mayo in the 1880s. Selina was from Achill Island and Patrick was from Ballina. They left in the 1880s to work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.
The mines helped to fuel America's 19th-century economy and one of them collapsed and killed Patrick. He left behind a son, my grandfather and namesake, who also worked in the mines as a boy and bettered his life and the fortunes for his family through hard work. One of his sons, my father Donald who passed away this summer, earned an academic scholarship to medical school and became one of the nation's leading neurosurgeons. My mother, Claire, and he provided their children with opportunities of which Patrick and Selina could only dream. These opportunities, to pursue lives of dignity and potential, have been afforded to generations of American Cooneys and we are certainly not alone.
According to the US census, more than 11% of Americans claim some form of Irish ancestry, yet times are changing. I think we would all agree that no matter what our particular politics or citizenry, we are living in an extraordinary political time. I am an admirer of the American scholar, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks. He writes that today's politics are characterised not so much by optimism and hope but by anxiety and polarisation. In the United States we are seeing historic levels of anger and distrust of the government and our political leaders and I think we are seeing the same in many parts of Europe. Why is that? Some blame bureaucrats and politicians in the United States and Europe. Others blame greedy financiers. Still others point to social welfare, trade, tax or immigration policies. One or more of all these may contribute to the distrust and anger that have made achieving immigration reform so difficult. Arthur Brooks posits that the source of this anger runs much deeper. In the United States - we could argue the same holds true for Great Britain, as recently evidenced - we have a highly developed welfare system. Our safety nets are quite good at helping people at the very bottom of society but our country has become very bad at needing everyone. It is this sense of being left behind and of not being needed that is driving much of the politics of the political right and left.
We have all witnessed the astonishing rise of Donald Trump, the politician. Behind that rise is what CNN has called "A group in its last throes as the biggest force in politics: the white working class". A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about six in ten white working class people said it had gotten harder for people like them to get ahead financially, while two thirds believed it was harder to find good jobs. More than any other group whites without college degrees blame the government for the economic problems that beset the working class, with 62% saying the federal government deserves all or most of the blame for those problems. Given these data, it is not surprising that 47% of white working class voters in America believe immigrants are a burden on our country. Why? It is because they take away jobs, housing and health care and more than half of all those surveyed, not just white working class voters, believe Muslim immigrants increase the risk of terrorist attacks in the United States.
These are unsettling times, in which people of goodwill and strong character are struggling to smartly navigate the turmoil and uncertainty. Our political leaders who disagree on many, many things might want to think in terms of how our nation's policies can do a better job of making each person necessary based on a belief in the equality of human dignity and the right of each and every person to realise his or her potential. Senator Billy Lawless is the living embodiment of such a leader. I met him at a prearranged meeting at a Washington pub, where he asked me to assist him and the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform to navigate the halls of Congress in an effort to achieve some legal relief for the undocumented Irish. That was over a decade ago. He convinced me and many others in Congress that providing a measure of legal status was the necessary and humane solution for the undocumented. Both he and the Irish Government have been consistent and well engaged advocates for comprehensive immigration reform as a means to achieving legal relief for the undocumented, but despite his passion, the leadership of Ambassador Anne Anderson and the many groups she and her able staff have assembled, they have experienced the difficulties of achieving immigration reform during times marked by a sluggish economy and divided government.
A quick review of the past 30 years of immigration policy might help. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, an amnesty law, passed through Congress and was signed by President Ronald Reagan. They were good times for America. The economy was rolling, but we had a divided government and a Republican President and a Democrats-controlled House. The legislation was meant to tighten border security and crack down on employers hiring undocumented immigrants, while offering amnesty to those already in the country illegally. However, it failed on the former and many working class Americans wound up feeling burned by the latter. In 1996, during the Bill Clinton years, some but not all Republicans tried to reduce legal immigration. I worked for the chairman of the judiciary committee at the time, Orrin Hatch, who opposed those efforts. Their efforts and similar attempts at a national identification card did not go anywhere. Legislation which is still before Congress was introduced by a prominent Democrat that would have deprived the children of undocumented immigrants of citizenship. He has since said it was a mistake, but that was the sentiment at the time.
In 2000 Republicans passed legislation to address a loophole problem with the 1986 law's treatment of some immigrants and the family members of legal residents. The Clinton Administration wanted to do more and provide a pathway to citizenship, with an amnesty for one group of Hispanic undocumented. That did not succeed. but Bill Clinton signed the Bill which Congress passed following the 2000 election.
In the period 2004 to 2007 President Bush made several attempts at immigration reform. He hoped to appeal to both business owners and Hispanic voters with a comprehensive overhaul. President Bush began pushing for a guest worker programme in 2004. A comprehensive bipartisan Bill was introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain in 2005, but it could not be reconciled with an enforcement-only House Bill that had sparked protests. President Bush made another attempt in 2007, crafting a compromise that allowed a path to legal status for current immigrants and a new temporary worker programme, contingent on more strict border security and employer crackdowns. The legislation resembled a conservative approach offered by Senators John Cornyn of Texas, currently the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and Jon Kyl of Arizona in 2005. Ultimately, conservative Republicans, with several pro-labour Democrats, opposed the legislation which died in the Senate.
Like President Bush, President Obama got caught in the middle of Hispanic voters, the GOP and other domestic priorities. In 2009 he called immigration reform a priority, but he did nothing material to advance the cause at a time when Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress. By early 2010 he faced pressure from immigration advocates to move forward. He pushed for comprehensive reform, but after his fight over Obamacare, he himself acknowledged that "there may not be an appetite" for immigration reform at the time.
In 2013 the prospects for immigration reform improved with the gang of eight proposal passing the Senate, only to see it go nowhere in a House controlled by the GOP and here we are.
What does the future hold? Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have promised to make immigration reform a priority during the first year of their respective administrations, but what qualifies in one camp as reform and an improvement over the current state of affairs is seen as dangerous and reckless by the other camp and vice versa. The Republican platform, reaffirmed by Donald Trump just last month, calls for a wall along the Mexico border and opposes any form of amnesty for those who crossed into the United States illegally. Although Donald Trump has pivoted from his prior position that all undocumented aliens should be deported, my sense is that a Trump administration with a Republican-controlled Congress will not pass legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented aliens. It is more likely we will see the Congress focus on enforcement and deportation of criminal aliens first, with Democrats and moderate Republicans trying to add and include a pathway to legal status for citizenship during that process. It should also be noted that Mr. Trump has intimated that those undocumented who have overstayed their visas should be held to account more than those who entered the United States illegally. He has more empathy for those who crossed illegally than those who have overstayed their visas.
Democrats have moved in the complete other direction. Hillary Clinton has doubled down on President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration, but the implementation of those orders has been blocked by the courts. Comprehensive immigration reform is needed to achieve Hillary Clinton's stated goals, which is why she has committed to making comprehensive immigration reform a priority during her first 100 days in office. The prospects for enactment of a comprehensive immigration reform Bill are modest, particularly if the Democrats fail to win control of the Senate. No one expects the House to go to the Democrats and Speaker Ryan, despite his personal support for comprehensive immigration reform, faces a sharply divided caucus on this and many other issues.
If Hillary Clinton wins in November, she may also bring with her a Democrat-controlled Senate, as I noted, within which New York's Chuck Schumer is the new majority leader. Senator Schumer has made clear his intentions as leader to advance comprehensive immigration reform along the lines of the gang of eight's 2013 Bill. That measure will provide legal protection for undocumented Irish residing in the United States. No one has been more supportive or a stronger advocate for the undocumented Irish than Chuck Schumer. He included that provision in his Bill at the behest of the Irish Government, Senator Billy Lawless and a coalition of groups supporting it and he should be credited for it. It has Republican support and Senator McCain and then Senator Brown were the leads on it on the Republican side.
In the scenario I just outlined, if Hillary Clinton wins and the Senate flips to Democratic control, I expect the Senate to pass comprehensive immigration reform within the first six months of 2017, but Senate Democrats will need to be careful not to overreach because their majority will be modest in size and they will be defending nearly twice as many seats in 2018. Additionally, whatever passes the Senate will still need to pass a sharply divided House controlled by Republicans, a majority of whom strongly oppose comprehensive immigration reform.
Will a Hillary Clinton White House try to achieve a consensus? Could Speaker Ryan even take up a consensus immigration reform Bill were one to be developed? These are questions the answers to which only the future and God know. If Hillary Clinton wins the Presidency and Republicans retain control of the Senate, I still expect comprehensive immigration reform of the sort the Irish Government has supported to still be on the table, but the issues just noted in the House will still apply and Senator McConnell will have his own agenda, an agenda that does not include comprehensive immigration reform. Then the question goes back to whether Hillary Clinton will seek consensus and work with Senator McConnell on the issues or will she press for her preferred version of the legislation and we will continue to have a stalemate. In the end, a deal is possible, but it will take leadership of the sort the Irish people have been providing in the United States for generations. With the continued hard work of Senator Billy Lawless, a committed Government and an approach that emphasises outcomes that advance the cause of human dignity and opportunity over partisan political advantage, immigration that works for the Irish and the working class of America can be achieved.
I thank the House.