Sunday, December 2, 2007

Irish pushing open door in America

The Irish Times,Sat, Dec 01, 2007

If the Government did not lobby the US government on immigration, it would lose influence in Washington, argues Bruce Morrison

Dan O'Brien certainly likes lecturing the Government about its benighted policies and practices (Focus on Irish illegals in US is policy failure, Opinion and Analysis, November 29th). In January 2005, he instructed on the failure of the peace process to deal effectively with "militant republicanism" and warned that it would "take a generation" for the transformation to democratic rule in the North to take hold. I am sure he meant well, but the Government wisely ignored his counsel and kept on course to achieve the May 8th milestone of devolved government in the North.

I am sure that he means well again with his lecture on the politics of Washington and the conduct of foreign policy as it relates to US immigration. As someone who has actually legislated in Washington, advised former US president Bill Clinton, and lobbies on immigration today, I am confident that he is just as mistaken in his current advice. But first it is essential to correct the record. O'Brien tells Cabinet Ministers to stop "pestering" and "browbeating" officials and legislators in Washington, who they have "harangued" on the immigration issue. Who is your source Dan? I have been working with Cabinet Ministers and other representatives of the Irish government in Washington on immigration, the North, economic investment and other issues for 25 years. I have never seen nor heard of any such behaviour.

Relations between Irish political and diplomatic leaders and their US counterparts are as warm and cordial as anyone could imagine.

But this is about more than courteous exchanges. O'Brien has the relationship completely backwards. He thinks that if the Government leadership would just keep quiet until his idea of an important issue comes up, the US government will then snap to attention and do what it is told. Not likely. Political influence is like a muscle. The more it is used, the stronger it gets. Those who can garner political victories are the ones who get listened to the next time they come calling. In Washington, the meek do not inherit the earth.

Leave it to the Irish-Americans, says Dan. But he has it backwards again. The only reason Ireland punches above its weight in Washington is the political impact of 40 million Irish-Americans. When the Irish Government and Irish America work in tandem, it is a potent team. That is the story of the immigration victories of the Donnelly and Morrison visas and it was the story of the peace process over the past 15 years.

Both the Irish public and the Irish-American public want the immigration plight of the undocumented Irish in the US addressed. What better than for both to show their political and practical unity on the issue?

The single-greatest asset that Ireland has in its relationship with the US is the strength and influence of the huge Irish-American diaspora. This community has been replenished over the past two centuries by repeated waves of arrivals. One generation of the Celtic Tiger does not change those fundamentals.

It is deeply important for Ireland to continue to have a footprint in the US. Unfortunately, US immigration policy has made legal immigration increasingly difficult - so that only 1,000 Irish got green cards out of a million issued in 2005.

The Government is better placed than ever since the success of the peace process and the end of the old disputes to work with that diaspora to address this problem. They have given every indication of grasping that opportunity, including their role in the recent US-Ireland Forum. The immigration issue is a key element of that relationship.

An opinion poll to be released next week will show that 87 per cent of the Irish public believes working on the immigration issue is a major priority. Irish-America feels the same way, as demonstrated by the massive support at rallies for the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. The Government would be seriously remiss if it did not continue to work on an issue of such importance.

Worse perhaps than all the naive speculation about how "foreign policy" will be damaged by Ireland showing its strength in Washington on the immigration issue, is O'Brien's complete distortion of the proposals that the Government is supporting. The Government is looking for a more substantial number of visa slots to assure a continuing flow of legal immigrants to the US, coupled with a reciprocal commitment of easier entry for a like number of Americans to work in Ireland. The goal is to end the illegal flow and create a "culture of compliance" with US immigration law for those who wish to work and live in the US.

It is in this context of opening the door wider and ending unauthorised entries and stays that the Government also proposes to let the current undocumented be eligible to join that new legal flow by coming home to get visas and be allowed to return without being barred for 10 years, as would happen under current law.

Contrary to being offensive to US politicians struggling with immigration, this approach is music to their ears. Here is the Government offering to create an opportunity for Americans to work in Ireland and to remove the barriers to the Irish doing the same in the US on a fully legal basis. And the plan does not involve amnesty, but rather a return home and a waiver of the waiting time to go back using authorities already long recognised in US law.

No one can be sure if this plan will succeed, but it will not be because anyone resents the attempt. In the US, politicians expect that other governments will pursue their interests.

Former congressman Bruce Morrison was the author of the Morrison visas legislation and a founding member of the Irish-American peace delegation to Northern Ireland, beginning in 1993

© 2007 The Irish Times

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