Posted By: July 03, 2013


Ray O’ Hanlon. Irish News(Belfast). Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The United States Senate last week passed its comprehensive immigration reform bill. This is big news. It’s big because (a) the bill is very important, and (b) the Senate actually did something – and might have even been chewing gum at the same time as it walked the bill past and around its foes. But this was the easy part of the effort to reform America’s immigration laws.

Next up, the US house of Representatives, a hard place if ever there was one.

Still, thousands of undocumented Irish in America have cause for a more celebratory Fourth of July after passage of the Senate bill that includes, deep in its hundreds of pages of text, a provision that would award Irish hopefuls renewable, two-year, ‘e-3’ visas. Indeed, the Irish e-3 component in the bill, S.744, or the Border Security, economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernisation Act, is not a standalone, but is stitched into an existing provision in the law that offers e-3s to Australians. So the Irish e-3 plan is something already tried and tested with Aussies. And it is only 58 words long. But if it ultimately passes into law it will amount to the most radical change in the story of Irish migration to America in almost half a century. The margin of victory in the Senate, 68 to 32, was impressive enough given the sharp divisions that persist over reform. All of the Democrats in the 100-member chamber voted for S.744, as did 14 Republicans. The bill was crafted by the so-called ‘Gang of eight,’ four Democrats and four Republicans. But while the Democrats were all more or less singing off the same hymn sheet, the four Republicans in the ‘gang’ had to work hard to convince colleagues to back the legislation. Convincing an additional 10 turned out to be more than sufficient, though the opposition of 32 Republicans will be political fuel for reform opponents in the house. The Senate bill offers 10,500 renewable e-3 visas for the Irish on an annual basis, and, crucially, with no legislative sunset. Passage of the bill represented a big win for the ‘Gang of eight,’ but was a particular triumph for the bill’s lead Democratic sponsor, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who penned the Irish e-3 provision. Schumer has been leading the reform charge in general, and for the Irish in particular, most especially since the death of Senator edward Kennedy. Schumer has publicly stated that he feels that he is working to carry out the wishes of Kennedy for the Irish.


Kennedy, together with Republican John McCain, led an ultimately unsuccessful bid for immigration reform back in 2007 that would have allowed thousands of undocumented Irish to pursue a legal life in America. All too many Irish arrivals in recent decades have ended up being undocumented after their visitor visas run out. This was particularly the case in the 1980s when a hard-fought campaign by Irish reform campaigners resulted in visa schemes (the Donnelly and Morrison programmes being the two standouts) that allowed thousands of Irish to attain legal status.


But Donnelly, Morrison and the DV “diversity visa” lottery – itself created by Charles Schumer when he was still a member of the house of Representatives – did not cover all the Irish and many thousands have been forced to struggle on illegally, some of them for 20 years or more. S.744 offers new hope, and by way of the e-3 plan offers a huge morale-boost to today’s reform campaigners who have talked much of a so-called “future flow” of legal Irish migrants to America. The Irish e-3 plan was targeted by some senators during the initial Senate negotiations on S.744 – but it ultimately came through with the rest of the bill. That entire bill now represents the majority view of the Senate on immigration reform. But the view of the house, where Republicans have a strong majority, is certain to be very different. Rather than simply adopting the


Senate bill and working to amend it, the house is more inclined to craft its own bill (if it even does that), one that will end up being a lot more focused on border security than providing a path to green cards and citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants from around the world, thousands of Irish among them.


The next few days, then, will decide the fate of reform, not just for now but likely for years to come.