Response to Manus Cooney Speech in Seanad

I thank Mr. Cooney for being with us today to share his insights and expertise and for all his work on comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. As he knows, 50,000 undocumented Irish have been living in the United States for well over a decade now. In Illinois, many of them worked hard and paid taxes and yet none of them had a driver’s licence, which put them in grave danger, as Mr. Cooney knows, of deportation. A campaign was started 12 years ago to secure temporary driving licences for all the uninsured, undocumented drivers in Illinois. I am happy to say that, after building a broad coalition of immigrant rights groups, faith institutions, unions, businesses and cross-party bipartisan support, Republican and Democratic, the Bill that provided relief to over 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Illinois was passed. That model of co-operation among diverse sectors and across the political divide solved the problem that bedevilled the Irish undocumented and hundreds of thousands of others.

In addition, 11 other states and two territories followed suit with similar legislation that would affect millions. We took the decision after the 2013 Senate Bill to work locally and try to influence local states, and our bipartisanship models have worked. I am a firm believer in building consensus on core issues that affect broader society and the type of bipartisan efforts we witnessed in Illinois. Harking back to a not-too-distant time in Washington, two great Irish-American politicians, President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, reached across the aisle to find common-sense solutions to problems besetting the United States.

As Mr. Cooney knows, we took that spirit of co-operation to Washington DC to try to achieve a comprehensive immigration reform that would legalise 11 million undocumented workers, including the Irish. In 2013, we came very close with the gang of eight Senate bipartisan Bill which included a provision granting 10,500 visas for the Irish. When the Bill was in the throes of debate, I went to Luis Gutierrez, who is our championing Democratic leader for Hispanics and immigration reform. I told him there was a small Bill for the Irish for some visas. He asked me how many was a few, and I told him it was 10,500. He told me that was nothing. There was no objection to the main group that was in there with us.

Our hopes were dashed when the negotiations fell apart and the Bill died in the House. Since then, pundits have argued that immigration reform is a third rail and should be avoided by both parties in Washington. Advocates, like Mr. Cooney and many others, continue to keep the pressure on and the dream alive. Albert Einstein once said only those who attempt the absurd achieve the impossible.

My question has been asked already. When does Mr. Cooney think it will be appropriate to start lobbying the new Administration when the next President takes office? How does he rate the chances of immigration reform? He more or less answered that question in his contribution. Would an immigration Bill be piecemeal or comprehensive? Does he think that the political will exists on both sides to include an Irish E3 Visa, as we secured in the 2013 Bill? I again thank him for addressing the House.