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.