Residency agreement could help illegals get deal in US
Giving the 10,500 US citizens living in Ireland a special deal on residency could unlock a remedy for the tens of thousands of Irish illegal immigrants in the US who are trapped in a legal nightmare, a leading campaigner has said.
Senator Billy Lawless, whose Chicago catering business employs 500 people, has said the campaign to help the Irish illegals in the US must focus on trying to get a special deal for them. The man appointed to the Seanad as the "diaspora representative" in May 2016 has quietly continued his work at Leinster House on behalf of the Irish overseas.
This advocacy includes representations for large numbers of Irish emigrants now returning home and facing practical obstacles such as car insurance cover, school places for their children, and difficulties with bank accounts. "They did the country a favour by emigrating in the bad times and should not face an obstacle course now that they want to return home," Mr Lawless argues.
The Galway native moved with his family to Chicago in 1998 and opened his first Irish bar close to the Chicago Cubs baseball HQ, at Wrigley Field, on the city's northside. After lunch one afternoon there were 15 Irish building workers, all with vans parked nearby, discussing their difficulties getting US driving licences and insurance cover given their illegal status.
"That discussion led into the world of immigrant advocacy, first off with 'Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform', and then on to other organisations. Ultimately, that campaign proved a success with a scheme of driving licences for the so-called 'undocumented'," he recalls.
The senator has campaigned for immigration reform tirelessly ever since. The work led to contacts with US president Barack Obama (inset), who also comes from Chicago, and Mr Lawless was honoured by being asked in November 2014 to introduce the then US president before he delivered a landmark speech in his hometown.
Mr Lawless, along with his wife Anne, is now an American citizen. He says there have been too many false dawns on immigration reform and he concedes he was disappointed that Mr Obama did not deliver a breakthrough during his term.
"But I believe president Obama felt he had to choose between immigration reform and his work on affordable healthcare. He could not fight two major battles at one time," he reflects.
Mr Lawless insists the illegal Irish in the US are not being especially "targeted" as 30 Irish people were deported last year and the figure was 50 back in 2010. "But they are in an impossible predicament and always at risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many have been in the USA over 20 years and find they cannot return for important family occasions," he says.
The overall Irish illegal numbers might be as low as 10,000 or anything up to 50,000.
But they are a very small group in the overall US emigration controversy, with an estimated total of 11 million people.
He now suggests the Irish Government should offer something to Washington to help undo the deadlock.
He says that an estimated 10,500 US citizens living in Ireland could be given help to reduce the bureaucracy they face in getting residency.
"We could then seek a reciprocal arrangement which would help the Irish illegals in the US," he adds.
Mr Lawless is insistent there must be no new "false hopes" but he believes this proposal could get a favourable wind from the Irish Government. He says he has worked well with the junior minister for the diaspora, fellow Galway man Ciarán Cannon, and with TD John Deasy, the Irish diaspora envoy to the US Congress.