55. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the outcome of recent discussions with the United States Administration on the difficulties facing the undocumented Irish in the United States of America; when he expects immigration reform legislation to be progressed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 14153/18 asked on 28 Mar 2018)
Deputy Robert Troy: The plight of the undocumented Irish in the US is well known. What progress is the Government making in tackling the issue?
Deputy Simon Coveney: The Government has consistently conveyed to the US Administration and congressional leaders the priority which Ireland attaches to immigration reform in the United States, while at all times respecting that US immigration policy is a matter solely for the US authorities to formulate and implement.
In encouraging our friends in the US towards immigration reform, we have two key objectives: increased pathways for legal migration by Irish citizens to the US and relief for the plight of undocumented Irish citizens living in the US.
In that regard, the Taoiseach discussed the issue with President Trump in the Oval Office on 15 March and also in his meetings on Capitol Hill during the St. Patrick’s Day visit. This long-standing tradition of meetings at the highest level in Washington around St. Patrick’s Day affords Ireland a unique opportunity to engage with the US Administration and congressional leaders at the highest level on issues of particular interest to Ireland, including immigration reform.
I had previously raised the issue with the then Secretary of State, Mr. Tillerson, when I visited Washington last month.
The Government’s special envoy to the United States Congress on the undocumented, Deputy Deasy, has also been very active, while our Embassy in Washington DC is engaged with the Administration and with contacts on Capitol Hill on an ongoing basis.
Through these many high-level contacts and discussions, the Government has been exploring a number of different options, including the possibility of a reciprocal agreement covering the undocumented Irish in the US, on the one hand, and US citizens looking to move to Ireland, on the other.
However, this remains a very challenging issue and I do not want to raise expectations unduly. Immigration reform has been a divisive issue within the US political system for decades, with pronounced disagreement, even within the same political parties, on the best way to deal with an issue which directly affects approximately 11 million people.
In that context, finding a solution for the thousands of undocumented Irish in the US is still a difficult task, but we are trying to make progress on it.
Deputy Robert Troy: I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. As I said at the outset, the plight of the undocumented is well known, with between 10,000 and 50,000 people affected. I ask the Tánaiste to take this opportunity to clarify his understanding of the numbers affected. When we hear figures, sometimes we do not think of the individuals behind them. I recently met a widow at a clinic in Granard. She can only visit her son when she can go to America. Thankfully, her grandchildren can come back because they are US citizens. She said to me with a tear in her eye that she is getting much older and she does not know for how much longer she will be able for the journey to the United States.
The Tánaiste said that the Taoiseach raised the issue again most recently at the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, which is welcome. How realistic does he think it is that we will be able to enter a bilateral reciprocal visa arrangement with the US, similar to that which, I understand, the US has with Australia?
Acting Chairman (Deputy Eugene Murphy): I had no indication that these questions were being grouped, but I will allow Deputy Brendan Smith to ask a supplementary question.
Deputy Brendan Smith: We got notification from the Questions Office that Questions Nos. 51, 55 and 91 were being grouped.
Deputy Simon Coveney: I am happy to accept that.
Acting Chairman (Deputy Eugene Murphy): The Tánaiste is happy to accept that. I ask the Deputy to make his contribution.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I endorse what Deputy Troy said on the need to keep the immigration reform issue at the top of the agenda. The embassy and the consulates do excellent work on this in the United States, but it is extremely important that immigration reform is also kept at the top of the political agenda. I ask the Minister to ensure that this proposal regarding a reciprocal arrangement similar to the Australian E-3 visa be given urgent consideration as well. Like Deputy Troy, I attended a funeral of a family friend within the past number of weeks. Her daughter, who had been the US for 14 years, was unable to return home for her mother’s funeral. She had not seen her since she emigrated. Understandably, this was a major upset for a family. Mr. Ciaran Staunton’s lobby group has put forward a proposal relating to the need to formally request the US embassy to lift the three and ten-year ban on returning Irish immigrants. As the Minister knows, there are some undocumented Irish who are in a position to regularise their status through investment visas or sponsorship visas. At present, however, a person who would take that route must come home to finalise that application. They will then not get back to the US. I understand that there is an arrangement for some countries whereby this can be done in the US. The lobby groups are anxious that the Minister pursue this immediately with the United States Embassy to allow people to finalise such visa applications in the US because if they return to Ireland, they will not be allowed back into the US.
Deputy Simon Coveney: I will follow up on the issue raised at the end of the Deputy’s contribution. It is very important that I do not raise expectations that we can solve this issue easily. I have been in this House for nearly 20 years, as have many others. I and others have been to Washington many times trying to deal with the issue of the undocumented Irish. There have been false dawns over and over again. We have been quietly working to try to find a way forward that could create a reciprocal arrangement whereby we would facilitate US citizens who may want to retire or come to Ireland and on the other side, we would get access to visas for Irish people in the US and Irish people who may want to go to the US. That is something the Taoiseach discussed directly with President Trump. It is something I discussed with Rex Tillerson, although he has now moved on. A process and a discussion are under way. A legislative vehicle is needed to do that, which means getting support on Capitol Hill for that and having a sponsor and appropriate legislation and so on. There are many components to a potential solution and there are potential blockages with each one of them even though I think there is goodwill towards what we are trying to do on the part of many key players, including the President. We will continue to work on that in a way I hope does not raise too much expectation but tries to get an outcome. Deputy Deasy has done a really good piece of work in this area with quiet, firm diplomacy, if one wants to call it that, over many months to try to find a way forward that may work. Time will tell in the coming weeks whether we can get something significant across the line.