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'We expect something - but it won't change overnight': Hopes for undocumented Irish under Biden administration

A US-based immigration lawyer from Limerick has said Biden looks set to reverse many Trump measures.

The US President while on a trip to Ireland in 2016.
The US President while on a trip to Ireland in 2016.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Images

THE PROSPECTS FOR the undocumented Irish living in America have gotten considerably better with a Joe Biden presidency, after the immigration polices under Donald Trump made people more fearful of their status in the US. 

From trying to work with Trump – once described as someone who “appears to be a very difficult man to talk to” (according to the current Agriculture Minister) – the Irish government is hoping that the Biden administration will be more amenable to its aims.

In particular, the government says it is continuing to “explore all available options” for securing the passing of the E3 Visa Bill through the US Senate which would grant several thousand more visas for Irish citizens each year. 

James O’Malley, from Limerick, is an immigration lawyer based in New York with O’Malley and Associates. 

He told TheJournal.ie that Biden winning out over Trump is only good news – for the undocumented Irish as well as other Irish citizens seeking visas in the US. 

“The Biden administration is committed to reversing some of the drastic initiatives on visas and immigration,” he said. “Initially, they’re focusing more on the humanitarian issues, such as the separation of families at the border.

“But they’ve also ordered a review of the deportation process. It’s about whether they will revert to a more benign approach, instead of deporting people who commit very minor offences like a traffic infraction. That was the zero tolerance policy of the Trump administration. It looks like the Biden people will reverse that.”

‘A more comprehensive overhaul’

Biden’s first actions in this area since becoming President on 20 January have been welcomed by advocates. 

As part of his first acts, Biden signed new protections for so-called Dreamers — immigrants from mainly Latin American countries who arrived illegally as children and had been temporarily shielded from deportation by a programmme Trump tried to dismantle. 

In addition, the new president overturned one of his predecessor’s orders pushing aggressive efforts to find and deport unauthorised immigrants, and imposed a 100-day suspension on most deportations.

O’Malley said that it appears that the Biden administration will look at a “more comprehensive overhaul of the visa and immigration process”. 

This will look at two aspects – the undocumented and unlawful residents, and the lawful immigration visas. 

For the undocumented Irish, O’Malley said it’s unlikely there’ll be any “amnesty” for one particular group. 

He said: “What the new administration is talking about now is a ‘path to citizenship’. They’re not even ascribing the community the title of ‘undocumented’. They’re rolling into the whole idea of the immigration system being a mess and needing overhaul.”

Such overhaul would need a massive political effort, as Republicans are likely to try to block many of Biden’s aims in this regard. But it’s not the only area that Biden’s administration will be looking at. 

“Within the lawful immigration, there’s all sorts of work permits given on a temporary basis,” O’Malley said.

“There are literally dozens of them, depending on the industry, the expertise and so on. That has become a huge maze that is enormously complicated to navigate through.”

Kamala Harris’ close ties to tech companies – given she represented California and a lot of the big tech firms are based in San Francisco – could play a role as these firms are also keen for a liberalisation of the visa system to attract skilled workers. 

This week, Apple boss Tim Cook said he was ready to work with the Biden administration and Congress for “comprehensive solutions to fix our broken immigration system”.

E3 Visa Bill

One big hope for Ireland was the E3 Visa Bill which would create a visa programme for Irish nationals.

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It is a two-year renewable work visa that is currently only available to people from Australia. The bill that would make that possible for Irish people – granting around 5,000 visas a year – almost made its way through the US Congress.

It needed just one vote, from Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, in December 2018 to block the bill’s passage through the Senate. 

“It would’ve been an extra 5,000 or 6,000 visas a year,” O’Malley said. “He most likely blocked it because he’s part of that caucus of Republicans that strongly identifies with the Trump idea of immigrants. In that world, immigrants and visas – they’re all bad stuff.”

In response to a recent parliamentary question, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that the Irish government looks forward to working with Biden to pursue comprehensive immigration reform in the US. 

Coveney said: “In terms of securing future pathways for immigration, we continue to prioritise the E3 Visa Bill. If passed, this could allow access to thousands of US visas each year to Irish citizens, providing new opportunities to live and work in the US. We will continue to explore all available options for securing this.”

O’Malley said that it is possible that the E3 bill could be revived but that wouldn’t do much for undocumented Irish people in the US. 

They would be very good and very welcome, but wouldn’t solve the undocumented issue,” he said. “They’re only given to people who have not committed immigration offences.”

Nevertheless, the US-based Limerick lawyer O’Malley said that he is looking forward to some kind of breakthrough in this area as efforts by Obama to make progress were frequently blocked by the Republicans.

With Democrats controlling both the House and the Senate, for now at least, that provides a chance to get things moving. 

“Trump went the opposite direction,” O’Malley said. “They just demonised immigrants constantly. We’re expecting different with the adults in the White House now. We’re expecting something. But we also know it won’t change overnight.”

About the author:

Sean Murray

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