Sunday 18 February 2018

Illegal Irish in America 'jubilant' as path opens to citizenship

Eamon Gilmore
Eamon Gilmore

Bette Brown

THOUSANDS of illegal Irish across the United States will be jubilant at the passage by the US Senate of a sweeping immigration reform bill that holds out the promise of a path to citizenship.

But they also know that an even tougher battle now starts to secure the legislation in the House of Representatives.

The bill would amount to the most sweeping changes in decades to US immigration laws and is a major victory.

But even in the final hours as the clock ticked down to the vote, Irish American leaders were working feverishly to win changes in a part of the bill that covers the J1 non-immigration summer work visa used by thousands of Irish students each year.

The Irish lobby won a victory by securing a reduction in a proposed 500 dollar fee to 100 dollars. It was not entirely clear that other concerns had been ironed out but the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said last night he was happy that the provisions in the bill “will allow the continuation of the J1 programme.”

Welcoming the Senate action, he said: “This is a very positive development that takes us another step closer towards addressing the problems faced by undocumented Irish emigrants in the US and allowing them to emerge from the shadows.” In a reference to the J1 visa, he added: “I am particularly pleased that the bill includes provisions that will allow for continuation of the summer J1 visa programme that has meant so much to successive generations of young Irish people.”

There were dramatic scenes in the Senate as the vote neared. Spectators in galleries that overlook the Senate floor watched expectantly as senators voted one by one from their desks. Some onlookers erupted in chants of "Yes, we can" after Vice President Joe Biden announced the vote result.

In the final hours of debate, members the group that drafted the measure, frequently spoke in personal terms while extolling the bill's virtues, rebutting its critics - and appealing for passage the bill.

In the Senate, at least, the developments marked an end to years of gridlock on immigration. The shift began taking shape quickly after the 2012 presidential election, when Republican leaders concluded the party must show a more welcoming face to Hispanic voters who had given Obama more than 70 percent of their votes. This was the new demographic that changed the political landscape and made it in everyone’s interest to pass the bill.

The bill offers a 13-year path to citizenship to as many as 11 million illegal immigrants, over 55,000 of whom are Irish.

The Republican leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, has already said he expects the House to vote on its own version of the immigration bill before the end of August.  But non-one expects this to be an easy battle, least of all the Irish. But for the moment they have much to celebrate.

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