Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Questions (43)

Niall Collins


43. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the recent progress made in addressing the issue of the undocumented Irish in the United States of America; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37465/19]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

I ask the Tánaiste to update us on the progress, if any, in regard to the undocumented Irish in the United States.

The Taoiseach and I have prioritised the issue of Irish immigration in the US since taking office. We will continue our efforts in this regard until we secure progress, both in terms of future legal immigration opportunities for Irish citizens and also in securing a pathway for those Irish who are undocumented to regularise their status. The Special Envoy to the US Congress on the Undocumented, Deputy John Deasy, has also worked closely on these issues with my Department and he has done a really good job.

Since taking office, I have continuously raised immigration issues in all my interactions with the US Administration and US political leaders. In February, I visited the US for a series of engagements with the US Administration and congressional leaders, during which I raised these issues. In April, I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss these with the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and her congressional delegation when they visited Ireland. The Taoiseach has also raised immigration issues during his high-level engagements with the US, including during the visit of President Trump earlier in the summer, and the issue was also raised with Vice President Pence during his visit earlier this month.

These engagements have already borne fruit. I was pleased to note that the E3 Bill, which if passed would offer new opportunities for Irish citizens to live and work in the US, was reintroduced into the US Congress earlier in the summer. Much work still needs to be done for this Bill to become law and our embassy in Washington D.C. is focusing its efforts on securing the passage of the Bill.

The issue of the undocumented Irish in the United States remains a high priority for the Government and Irish officials across the US continue to engage and advocate on behalf of this vulnerable community. My Department works alongside the Irish immigration centres across the US. I want to recognise the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, who has put an enormous amount of time and work into supporting many of the Irish communities across the US, many of them very vulnerable. In 2018, over €3 million was allocated to 76 organisations across the US, including the Irish centres.

In short, we continue to prioritise this issue. We have made some progress in regard to the E3 Bill but there is still work to do.

I thank the Tánaiste. We are all aware this is a long-running issue and there has not been any significant progress. We saw during the summer that a number of raids were carried out in the United States, which terrified Irish communities. An Irish man, Keith Byrne, was at the centre of one of those raids, which showed the vulnerability of Irish people living in the United States without documentation. It has to be a priority to keep this at the top of the agenda, which is why I am raising it here on behalf of Fianna Fáil. There needs to be a legal pathway to regularise the status of Irish people living there without documentation. We also need to step up our engagement in the United States with organisations that support the Irish across the states.

The Tánaiste mentioned that the Taoiseach has raised this with President Trump and that the Tánaiste himself raised it with Vice President Pence, whom he met at Shannon Airport. Can he tell us exactly what the Vice President said or what indications he gave? When he was here, he made a big play in regard to his own Irish heritage.

For those in the House who are not familiar with it, the E3 Bill is essentially a provision that allows for a certain quota of visas to be provided for Australians every year.

However, each year a significant number of those visas are not used. What we were looking for, and what we had lobbied to try to achieve, was a system such that Ireland could potentially use the unused Australian visas the following year in order that there would be no question of our taking Australian visas, which would be reallocated to applicants from Ireland. The White House and the President's team have been hugely supportive in trying to get this legislation through. That goes right to the top, from my understanding, and we appreciate that. The Bill almost went through; one Senator prevented its passing. There are now efforts to try to ensure that it becomes law the second time around. That would open up for the first time in many years a new vehicle to facilitate young and not-so-young Irish people who want to go to work in the US under that structured scheme. It would be reciprocal because we would also facilitate US citizens coming here to work.

We have made a great deal of progress in this area. We have a lot of support, not only from the President and the White House but also from Democrats. That is why the Bill was almost passed a few months ago. We will continue to work with friends and partners in Congress to get it passed.

I understand the E3 visa project, the fact that the Bill nearly passed on the previous occasion, and that one Senator put a hole in it. What I am focusing on are the undocumented Irish in the United States. Where do matters stand in the context of finding a pathway, a glimmer of hope or a light at the end of the tunnel in order to regularise their status in the United States? I refer to the case of Keith Byrne, which came to light during the summer. The E3 visa, as the Tánaiste has rightly pointed out, will create a new pathway for people here to go to the United States. He knows the point I am making. I am asking about the people who are over there living in the shadows.

I am very familiar with the Keith Byrne case. I spoke to his family at the time and we did what we could to help him. There are many other Keith Byrnes who have made the US their home, have family and children and good jobs and are contributing as good citizens in the US. We need to help them and we are trying. The truth, though, as the Deputy will know, is that immigration and immigration reform are about the most controversial thing on Capitol Hill. There are approximately 11 million undocumented people in the US, from many countries, including Ireland. We are trying to find ways in which we can help our people as best we can. It is also important, however, to be frank that when we try to do so, our efforts get caught up in solutions for many other communities. This is why we tried to pursue the E3 approach in the way we did to try to make some progress on visa access. We will continue to look for avenues. Our embassy is constantly looking for ways to allow us to advocate for the undocumented.

I am trying to accommodate all Members.