Last St Patrick’s Day, the Irish had hoped they would be celebrating a path to US citizenship this year, but their hopes were dashed when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives failed to follow the Senate’s lead and take action on the issue.
This hasn’t stopped a hard-fought campaign by Irish-American leaders, who gathered in Washington last Wednesday to lobby Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, two days before Taoiseach Enda Kenny met President Barack Obama at the White House for St Patrick’s Day ceremonies, where reform was also discussed.
However, the euphoria that greeted the passage of the Senate Bill last summer providing a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the US, some 55,000 of whom are Irish, evaporated in the face of inaction by the House. Now it’s crunch time because the Senate Bill will die with this Congress. So a final bill must be passed before a new Congress takes over after elections in November.
“We already have a Bill that passed the Senate so we’re 50% there. We have a few months to get it over the finish line,” said Ciaran Staunton, president of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.
“There was never an expectation,” he said, “that Republicans in the House would move on immigration before the deadline for primaries, [which choose party candidates for the November poll], because if Republicans had signed on to a bill before the primaries they would have been likely to face challenges from Tea Party candidates.
“Most of the primaries will be over in March or April and we think there is a window from May onwards. There are 200 Democrats who support a bill and more than 80 Republicans have said they want immigration reform. If the House Speaker [John Boehner] endorsed a bill, I believe you could have over 300 votes for immigration reform.”
Ultimately he believes the bill that will come out of the conference will be very much like the Senate Bill and include some form of citizenship pathway.
But it will be a very tough battle and the chances of success are slim, according to immigration expert and former Democratic Congressman Bruce Morrison, who secured the so-called “Morrison visas” for thousands of Irish in the 1990s.
“The chances that there will be legislation in the House of Representatives this year are very small. It may not be zero but it is very small,” Mr Morrison told me. “And the chances that it will be in a fashion that can be compromised with the Senate and have a bill reach the president in 2014 is even smaller. It’s way under 50% that it’s going to happen.”
The conventional wisdom is that for lobbying efforts to succeed they must be cross-party and indeed efforts by Irish-Americans, along with those of the Dublin Government, have targeted both Republicans and Democrats.
But one Democratic activist suggested it may be a wasted effort wooing Republicans because they tend to doggedly oppose comprehensive immigration reform and better results might be achieved by focusing on strengthening support for Democratic candidates who are on record as wanting full citizenship rights for illegals.
“The Republican goals are not the goals of the Irish but Dublin keeps on courting them,” I was told. “It’s not working. It’s a bit like repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Dublin thinks it can change their minds and policies but we can see it’s not happening.”
But such a suggestion was rejected by Mr Staunton and by Mr Morrison. “Democrats will attack Republicans, that’s what partisan politics is about, and there will be issues raised in the elections that those individuals in favour of reform didn’t do enough. But the Irish Government is diametrically the opposite of a partisan political organisation. It must at all times be neutral in American polities.
“So there’s no way that the Irish Government should do anything but try to be a persuader of all people it can talk to, in favour of doing the kind of immigration reform the Irish Government favours. For the Irish Government to do anything else would be inappropriate,” Mr Morrison said.
“It’s certainly true that a Democratic House would tend to be more sympathetic,” he added, “but the irony is that when there was a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate this [immigration issue] didn’t move.”
Mr Staunton made a similar point. “There are not enough votes in either party to do it on its own. We had to bring 14 Republican senators with us in the Senate. You couldn’t get it through with Democrats only. The Democrats were already in control of both houses of Congress under President Obama [in his first term], and they chose to park immigration reform.”
But now President Obama is making another push for passage of a bill. “We’re working hard to get it done this year,” he said recently.
He described himself as the “champion-in-chief” of immigration reform and blamed Congress for delaying legislation. “I am the champion-in-chief of comprehensive immigration reform. But until Congress passes new laws, I am constrained in what I am able to do,” he told Latinos.
Republican leaders are keenly aware that they badly need a slice of the new demographic that propelled Mr Obama to victory twice with over 70 per cent of the Latino vote.
Last month, House Speaker Boehner announced a set of principles on immigration reform. But his plan calls for separate bills rather than the comprehensive approach taken in the Senate legislation. The House principles would not allow for a special path to citizenship, although they would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a legal status and do not mention banning them from ever becoming citizens.
President Obama has said he is open to the Republican plan as long as they address the key issues of reform: border security, enforcement and legal status for undocumented immigrants.
“A House Bill will have many pieces in it and one of those pieces will be a pathway to citizenship,” Mr Staunton predicted. “There are some opportunities to achieve this before they break for the summer and that’s what all groups are working for,” he said, adding: “In America we believe the sky’s the limit rather than the sky’s falling.”