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Opinion The undocumented Irish in the US need and deserve our help

About 50,000 Irish citizens currently live in the US without legal status – we can’t just turn our backs on them.

THIS WEEK, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, has been in Washington, DC. He’s met with congressional leaders and advocates for immigration reform in the interests of regularising the situation of 50,000 Irish citizens in the US without legal status and creating a pathway to living and working there for future generations of Irish men and women. A picture of the Tánaiste walking the famed corridors of Capitol Hill with the Republican congressional leader and 2012 vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, even appeared on Twitter.

The picture, as the old maxim goes, says a thousand words. It is further proof positive of the extraordinary access that this small and strategically unimportant country enjoys in the US.

Indeed, Congressman Ryan, whose positions on economic and social issues place him firmly on his party’s right wing, was moved by the persistent entreaties of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. He is now a firm supporter of immigration reform legislation – passed by the US Senate and stalled in the US House of Representatives – which would benefit the undocumented Irish. Congressman Ryan, who is proud of his Kilkenny ancestry, has affirmed that the efforts of Irish people based in the US, such as Billy Lawless and Ciaran Staunton, and Irish politicians, like Senator Mark Daly, played a significant part in persuading him.

Assertions about the undocumented Irish

What’s so disappointing to next consider are the assertions made by some on both sides of the Atlantic about the undocumented Irish. In the past, these commentators have opined both that the undocumented are not worthy of the assistance of the Irish Government or of Irish-American politicians and that a “special deal” benefiting solely the Irish is an impossibility because of the changing demographics in the US and the allegedly declining power of Irish America.

Most recently, Colm Quinn, an Irishman living in Washington, DC, wrote in an Irish Times opinion piece earlier this month that what the Tánaiste has been doing this week and similar exercises “are at best missed opportunities and at worst a waste of time”. This and other pronouncements in Quinn’s piece angered me and many others I know on both sides of the Atlantic. To us, it’s profoundly sad that so many Irish people, whose forebears helped make America what it is, now live in limbo, in fear and in the shadows.

How is it a missed opportunity or a waste of time to press the case for fellow Irish people mired in the most unenviable of circumstances? Did they cease to be Irish when they left these shores? The answers to these questions are, in my view, self-evident. Irish political leaders don’t just have the option to bring up the undocumented at every opportunity; they have a moral duty to do so. Yet there remains a vocal minority who at times sneeringly disagree and for whom the undocumented Irish in the US are not a priority at any level.

Their sentiments are very difficult for me to accept when I encounter them either in person or in the media. They have equally enraged and surprised me since I moved here more than a decade ago.

A special kinship

Anyone who grew up in the Boston area in the 1980s and early 1990s could be forgiven for thinking that all Irish people want to move to America. From our own ethnic backgrounds and families to incessant interaction with young Irish people on the streets, in the pubs, on the building sites and on the playing fields, every corner of Ireland was in every corner of Boston. I got to know some Irish who had overstayed their visas back then through my family’s political work on their behalf; I came to know more later as my own social circle grew; and there are countless others I don’t know who have arrived in the years since I’ve been away.

To me, those I know, those I know to see and those I don’t know at all are not just a number – 10,000 or whatever the most recent estimate of undocumented Irish living in Boston and its environs might be. They are people with whom I share a special kinship. They have settled in my native county as I have settled in theirs. This is not to lionise them; they did break the law and many are far from saints. But every time I hear dispatches from Boston about someone having to miss either a sorrowful or joyous event over here, my heart sinks.

A setback or the death knell?

Their hearts, too, have sunk on past occasions when immigration reform looked as if it would finally happen, only to be forestalled as a consequence of some unexpected event. It is with them in mind that I read in the middle of one night last week of another unexpected event: Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat by a Tea Party primary challenger who attacked Cantor’s position on granting “amnesty for illegals.”

My immediate reaction, echoed by prominent observers, was that this outcome would frighten incumbent Republicans and effectively keep House Speaker John Boehner from allowing there to be a vote on immigration reform legislation before this year’s mid-term elections and even thereafter. On the other hand, since then, measured analysis of Cantor’s defeat suggests that immigration was not the decisive factor. As the Tánaiste has noted, it’s more likely a setback than the death knell.

Additionally, the long-term demographic shifts in the US and resulting harsh political realities for the Republican Party haven’t changed. Its leaders recognise that they must change the perception that they’re anti-immigrant – and fast. Paul Ryan’s embrace of a pro-reform stance demonstrates the unique role Ireland can play on this front. Accordingly, it is to be welcomed that the Tánaiste has been on Capitol Hill at this critical juncture.

And as for those who take issue with how he’s used his time there this week or with the Irish government’s advocacy for its undocumented in the US? I think I’ll fall back on some sound motherly advice: if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and columnist with and

Read: Gilmore in Washington to ‘highlight plight’ of undocumented Irish

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