Taoiseach Enda Kenny has held out hope for 55,000 undocumented Irish living in the United States, telling representatives from Congress — where legislation on the issue has stalled — to “get on with it”.
In hard-hitting words to the speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, Mr Kenny said the current law was “unfair” and that Irish people were “disproportionately” disadvantaged when it came to accessing US citizenship.
“They want to earn their money, they want to pay their taxes, they want to sing their national anthem,” he told a lunch on Capitol Hill, according to his spokesperson.
When they sing the words in the anthem about the land of “the brave and free” they themselves are not free, he said.
The event was hosted by Mr Boehner and guests included President Barack Obama and members of Congress.
The Taoiseach’s contribution, which was outside his pre-planned script, was described as “good humoured but unambiguous” and afterwards Mr Boehner joked that he had been “walked over” by Mr Kenny.
At his annual Saint Patrick’s Day programme of events in Washington DC, Mr Kenny pressed the issue of immigration reform much stronger than in previous years.
It formed part of his one-to-one bilateral meeting earlier with president Obama.
After their meeting in the Oval Office, the Taoiseach told reporters: “The president and I share the same view, we want this to happen. It is something that he has a passionate interest in.”
Mr Kenny said Mr Obama “wants our ambassador and representatives from Ireland to engage with both parties”.
The US Senate passed a package on immigration reform earlier this year, but it has still to be passed by the House of Representatives — something that is not a certainty before November’s mid-term elections.
The Taoiseach said he had held a number of meetings with Republicans on the issue during the first day of his visit to Washington on Thursday.
“There is a feeling that something could move on this,” he said. “There are a number of propositions before the legislature at the moment. The important thing, however, is that there would be a process of legalisation of people who are here undocumented, that they could pay their taxes, contribute to American society, raise their families, and have the freedom to travel over and back.”
It’s not just about the undocumented Irish. It is a much bigger problem, he said. “So the hope is that collaboratively, both parties on [Capitol] Hill can actually deal with this.
“A great deal of work has been done on an omnibus piece of legislation and on a step-by-step approach. Clearly it’s a matter for the American politicians to make a decision. We are very supportive of this.”
He said Ireland was one of the “disproportionate casualties” of the 1965 Immigrtation Act “despite the fact that we have extraordinary links with this country, for very many years. I would like to see this happen, the president would like to see it happen, and we encourage all those with political responsibility to make it happen.”
Mr Obama did not mention the issue of immigration in his comments, but said there were “few countries around the world where the people-to-people ties were so strong” as between Ireland and the US.
“In addition to sharing values and sharing a commitment to democracy we also share these family ties that go back generations. I once again want to thank the people of Ireland tor the incredible hospitality that they have shown to me, to Michelle, and to the girls each time we had the opportunity to visit Ireland,” he said.
Mr Obama also “congratulated” the Taoiseach on “the economic progress that has been made over the last several years in Ireland”.
He said: “Obviously Ireland was hit hard by the financial crisis and the problems with its banking system. It required some very tough decisions that Taoiseach Kenny was willing to take, but what we have now seen is an Ireland emerge from its assistance programme in a much stronger position on the global stage and the global markets, and as a consequence it is really well positioned to start building for the future, attracting businesses with a highly skill and well-educated workforce.”
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