Thursday, 18 November 2010

Ceisteanna (5)

Paul Connaughton


5 Deputy Paul Connaughton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the consultations he has had with the US administration concerning the plight of the undocumented Irish in the US given that the US elections are now over; his views on whether a bilateral arrangement can be achieved between Ireland and the US which would allow Irish citizens a greater opportunity to obtain working visas in the US; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43537/10]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Foreign)

Finding a solution for our undocumented citizens in the United States remains an important priority for this Government. The Government is also committed to working with our friends in Congress to enhance Ireland's bilateral visa arrangements with the US through the establishment of a two-year renewable E-3 visa facility.

I am very much aware of the difficulties confronting undocumented Irish citizens in the United States and the distress which both they and their families in the United States and Ireland experience arising from their position. I urge anybody who might be tempted to follow in the footsteps of the undocumented to take account of their plight. My Department and the embassy in Washington DC, in particular, has continued to work proactively on the issue with the US Administration, which is what was asked in the question. It also worked with congressional leaders and Irish immigration reform advocates, which I met in September. These groups included the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, ILIR.

We have been encouraged by President Obama's continued commitment to resolving this issue, and it is a view he shared when the Taoiseach and I met him in Washington in March. President Obama has since reiterated that commitment on a number of occasions. Earlier this year, President Obama welcomed what he described as the strong outline proposal for reform presented at the end of April by senior Democratic Senators Harry Reid, Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez.

Following active engagement with our friends in Congress, this proposal included provision for a path towards the regularisation of the status of the undocumented, including the Irish. It also specifically contained provision for an E-3 visa arrangement for Irish citizens which was subsequently included in an immigration reform bill introduced by Senator Menendez. Although this was only the first step in a lengthy legislative process, it represented an important achievement for the Government and the Irish community. However, the outcome of the congressional elections on 2 November presents significant new political challenges for immigration reform legislation. Given that the outgoing Congress will continue in place until January, it will be some time before new committees are established and the long-term prospects for reform are clearer.

The Government will continue to maintain very close contact with the US Administration and Congress, as well as with Irish community advocates, to address this issue in the period ahead. Since 2006 the Government has provided a total support of $325,000 to the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform and in September of this year, I met with the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres and the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform to discuss the prospects for reform. The Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid, last evening announced that he will introduce the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, DREAM, Act as a stand-alone bill after the Thanksgiving recess.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Although many advocates are optimistic about the prospects for passing DREAM, friends on the Hill indicate there is currently no concrete evidence of renewed bipartisan support for the bill, or that some Democratic senators who have not supported DREAM in the past will vote for it on the next occasion. Over the next two weeks it will be possible to better determine the level of support for DREAM now that it has become once again a concrete proposal. It will also be possible to better judge, after discussing further with our friends on the Hill, the prospects for other immigration measures such the E-3 type visa for Ireland.

Senior officials of my Department had talks in Washington as recently as last Monday on the issue of Irish immigration to the US. They discussed the issue of the undocumented, the conditions in which Irish citizens are held prior to deportation, the operation of the existing working holiday visa programmes and possibilities for the political agreement on the immigration issues following the 2 November elections in the US.

I thank the Minister for his reply and will begin by saying that I could not fault the efforts of either the Minister or the Government over the past couple of years. I have been deeply involved, with others in Fine Gael and other parties, in the matter. We have gone to much trouble to do our best on Capitol Hill over the past couple of years and the Minister is speaking to the converted when he says it is a difficult process. The problems are horrendous. I received a phone call——

The Deputy should put a question.

A woman rang me from Washington the other day who wanted to attend her mother's funeral in Dublin. She is undocumented in the US. What kind of advice would the Minister give to a person like that? Such problems arise every week and month.

I know of the Deputy's long-standing commitment to this and accept what he is saying. I have met people who could not come home for the funerals of loved ones and it is a difficult position to be in. I indicated in my reply and to the immigration reform movement that there is an obligation on us, with every opportunity for discussion, to tell people not to go to the United States unless everything is in order and not to be in breach of visas. It may seem initially attractive and people may think they will get by or get on but all of us involved in this for some years know the distress and significant stress that can be placed on some people, even those who have been in the US for ten years. It is not worth it in terms of quality of life and employment.

We cannot give advice to people in those positions. Many people have returned to Ireland but have not made it back to the US, with all the consequent chaos and dislocation brought to their lives. Senior officials in my Department had talks in Washington as recently as last Monday on the issue of Irish immigration into the US, and the Deputy knows we brought about the work holiday agreement for 12 months, which is a first.

It is limited enough.

It is very limited and restrictive in terms of implementation. The talks on Monday were with a view to bringing more flexibility into the issue. In our talks with immigration centres, it emerged that people on that agreement could eventually go to a better quality visa in the United States. I foresee a long hard slog in this respect with regard to refining existing arrangements and expanding them somewhat at some levels; this may apply to existing bilateral agreements.

In our talks with ILIR it was clear that given the electoral outcomes and political context in the United States, the issue will continue to be difficult. With the E-3 visa, the bilateral aspects come back into prime focus, as we see if we can develop that bilateral track with new representatives in Congress.

Will the Minister for Foreign Affairs state whether he believes we are further away from a comprehensive solution to this since the congressional elections?

I believe we are much further away but what does the Minister believe?

Before those elections we were not that close either, if we are to be honest. By this I mean the domestic political context in the United States is making it very difficult for legislators, even those who are for this reform by instinct. They must consider the security of their own seats, for example, and the issue is as basic and straightforward as that. Many people who are advocates for reform have had to fight very hard to survive the recent electoral contest. The economic context is not good in the context of facilitating reform of immigration law because there are record levels of unemployment in the United States because of a significant recession. This dampens the appetite in communities and society for facilitating such reform.

It is a challenging issue and I have not seen anything in the elections that will change the matter. Much will depend on who will head the key committees, as Senator Schumer was a good leader with a good track record who was interested in promoting the issue.