Brendan Smith TD presses the case for undocumented Irish following Speaker @johnboehner comments

On Thursday last (March 6th) I once again raised the important issue of the Undocumented Irish in the United States. I stressed how important it is that we keep up the pressure for progress on this issue and urged the government to use the St Patrick’s Day celebrations and our access to the White House and Capitol during that time to press the case for the more than 50,000 undocumented Irish and ensure that 2014 is the year of immigration reform in the USA

Brendan Smith TD

Brendan Smith TD

Dáil debates  Thursday, 6 March 2014

Topical Issue Debate : Undocumented Irish in the USA

Brendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fáil):  I am glad to be given the opportunity to raise this very important issue at this time. In June 2013, the US Senate passed the most monumental overhaul of US immigration laws in a generation which would clear the way for millions of undocumented residents to have a chance at citizenship, attract workers from all over the world and devote unprecedented resources for security along the US-Mexico border. The vote was 68 to 32, which was a very sizeable margin of victory, with 14 Republicans crossing the aisle to vote with all Democrats in favour of the legislation. That vote puts the onus of immigration reform on the Republican-led House, where leaders have unfortunately been resistant to the Senate legislation.

House Speaker Boehner has refused to bring the Senate Bill to the floor or even go to conference with the Senate. He has stated that reform of the immigration laws will be a priority in 2014 for the House and indicated to USA Today in December 2013 that immigration is next on the agenda, once the Senate passes a bipartisan budget deal for the next two years. Unfortunately, the comments from House Speaker Boehner on 6 February express doubts about progress on this legislation. 

The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, ILIR, is still fighting for the estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish in the immigration debate. The lobby was set up in December 2005 and it has since held several immigration rallies throughout the United States, along with high profile lobby days in Congress to advocate for our undocumented Irish workers. Irish-Americans from across the US will be out in force in the American capital next Wednesday, 12 March, lobbying for immigration reform during a rally organised by the ILIR. This is specifically aimed at Republican members of the House not in favour of reforming US immigration laws.

It is interesting to note that prior to 1965, the Irish could immigrate to the US freely, with approximately 17,000 doing so on an annual basis. As the House knows, the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are important in celebrating and consolidating links with the United States, and we have been offered that opportunity over many decades. It is also an opportunity to raise the issue of the undocumented Irish at the highest levels of influence in Washington DC. I am glad I have been given the opportunity to raise this issue to establish what progress has been made on advancing the cause of the undocumented Irish in the US. I would like the Minister of State to reassure us this evening that every ministerial visit to the United States would have this on the agenda with different interest groups, members of the US Administration and members in Congress. We must advocate the need to progress the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Bill, as it is critical for so many individuals. There are probably more than 50,000 people and their families affected. 

Minister of State Alex White:  I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore. Immigration reform in the US is an issue to which the Government accords very high priority. We are very conscious of the difficulties experienced by Irish citizens who are undocumented in the United States, and the Tánaiste has met and spoken to many of them during his working visits there, and also with the various groups who lobby on their behalf.

The Tánaiste has maintained contact, both directly and through our embassy in Washington DC, with many key players in Congress who are influential in steering the process of US immigration reform. Over the past six months, both he and embassy officials have had direct contact with some 70 members of the House of Representatives and their staff. These have included Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budgetary Committee and former vice presidential nominee, Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte, chair of the House Judiciary Committee and several other leading Republican members of that committee, including immigration sub-committee chairman, Trey Gowdy, Minority House Leader, Nancy Pelosi, chair of the Congressional Friends of Ireland, Pete King, House Speaker John Boehner, and House Majority Whip, Kevin McCarthy, and their staffs. The Tánaiste has also maintained contact with key figures in the US Administration and with Irish-American community representatives. Throughout all these contacts the Tánaiste has reiterated the Government’s interest in all aspects of immigration reform and in particular our interest in seeing an overall agreement reached which provides relief for currently undocumented Irish migrants and a facility for future flows of legal migration between Ireland and the US.

I wish to confirm that the issue is one which will again be raised as a priority by the Taoiseach during his forthcoming St Patrick’s Day visit to the US and his meetings with President Obama, Vice President Biden and key members of Congress. Other members of Government visiting the US will also raise the issue as appropriate during their contacts. This is particularly important in light of the most recent developments, which indicate that the prospects for passage of immigration reform legislation by Congress this year are not good. The Deputy will be aware that following passage last June of the US Senate Bill – the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Bill – the issue has been under consideration in the Republican controlled House of Representatives.

Public comments and private conversations which the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and our embassy officials in Washington DC had with leaders of the House Republican caucus had given rise to expectations that the House would take up consideration of a series of immigration reform bills last autumn. Unfortunately that did not come to pass, as Deputy Smith indicated. Earlier this year, further public comments from House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, and Chief Whip, Kevin McCarthy, again raised hopes that the Republican leadership in the House saw the need to proceed with immigration reform. To that end, the leadership prepared a set of draft principles that would guide action on immigration in the House and presented them to the members of their caucus for consideration at a meeting on 30 January. Informed by that discussion, House Speaker Boehner gave a press conference on 6 February in which he expressed doubts that the House would pass immigration reform legislation this year. He did reassert that immigration reform is something that needs to get done and that he would continue to consult his members. 

Given that expectations had again been raised, these and other comments are disappointing. However, it is important we keep our focus on the end game. The Government, through our ambassador in Washington DC and her team, is continuing an extensive outreach and engagement with members of Congress and with the Irish groups and organisations lobbying for immigration reform. We are monitoring the ongoing discussions within the Republican Party and continuing to press the case for addressing the concerns of our undocumented and to provide for a future legal flow for Irish immigrants to the United States. As I noted earlier, the forthcoming St. Patrick’s Day visits to the United States will provide a further important opportunity to engage with US leaders in support of our immigration objectives and assess the prospects for the weeks and months ahead.

The Government remains fully committed to the effort to achieve an outcome that addresses the needs of our undocumented and creates a legal path for the future. 

Brendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fáil):  I am glad that the Minister of State has given us a firm assurance that the Taoiseach and other members of the Government who will be in the United States will take every opportunity to raise at political and official level the need to have this immigration reform passed by the House of Representatives. We must try to ensure this is the year of immigration reform. We all encounter families who have family members in the United States whose position has not been regularised. We need to reassure the undocumented and their family members at home that every effort will be made to find a satisfactory solution. It is not only the emigrants who want their position to be regularised but many employer organisations have spoken out strongly in favour of the proposed legislation. If the Bill was passed, it would provide a path to permanent residency for more than 50,000 Irish people. The proposed E3 visa would provide for future flows of legal migrants between Ireland and the United States. We all know of individuals who have been unable to travel from the United States for family events, celebratory or sad. My constituency has suffered from heavy emigration for many decades. Many speak to me about their concern about a family member whose position has not been regularised in the United States. It is extremely difficult to see elderly parents come to one’s clinic concerned that their son or daughter may not be able to visit when the parents are not able, through infirmity or ill health, to travel to the United States. The Minister of State’s visit to Philadelphia last year was very successful. I spoke to some of the people he met who told him about the real situation in the United States and the need to advance this important measure.

Minister of State Alex White : I thank the Deputy for his insights and input into this important issue. Everything he has said about its importance is correct. In addition to the various contacts the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach, other Ministers and the embassy have had, the Government keeps a close eye on developments and makes its own assessment of the prospects for developments. While the exact shape and form of any movement remains to be seen, House contacts have spoken about a possible “convoy” of Bills on a range of issues such as US border security; individuals brought illegally to the United States as children; visas for agricultural and other temporary workers and, crucially, from Ireland’s perspective, the legalisation of undocumented migrants in a manner that would enable them to work in and travel to and from America. The timing and sequencing of such a “convoy” of Bills would be crucial if any overall deal was to be reached. In addition, their handling vis-à-vis upcoming Republican primary contests and-or the November Congressional elections will also be important and could yet determine the ultimate outcome. Congressional contacts have referred to the period from late May onwards as the likely time in which Bills could be taken on the floor of the House.


Brendan Smith TD Speak Out on #Seanad Reform #Seanref

Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013: Second Stage

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Deputy Brendan Smith:  The changes and deletions proposed to the Constitution in the Bill before the House run to 19 pages. Not since the adoption by the people of the Constitution in July 1937 have so many fundamental and basic changes been contemplated. I do not know of any Member of the Oireachtas who believes in a bicameral parliamentary system and does not share the view that Seanad Éireann needs to be reformed. Unfortunately, while the Seanad requires major reform, the many good reform proposals put forward in the past have not been acted on. Governments of all hues, including single party and coalition Administrations, have not carried out this necessary reform.

We should recognise that every Seanad has contributed in a positive way to our democracy. Many voices and particular interests, which were not represented in Dáil Éireann, have played an important role in national debate in Seanad Éireann. The Upper House initiated many important debates, especially on social matters and other issues of importance to citizens.

Over the years, Taoisigh have used their appointments to the Seanad to give people of outstanding ability the opportunity to contribute to the workings of the State through the parliamentary system. Similarly, people of outstanding ability have been elected in their own right to every Seanad. One need only consider the case of Northern Ireland which did not have an assembly or legislature for many years. During those dark years for the country, Seanad Éireann had people of the calibre of Seamus Mallon, Gordon Wilson and John Robb to give an important Northern context to debates in the Oireachtas and wider discussion in society. We should also be mindful of the need to protect the interests of minority groups, which was one of the major aims in constituting the Seanad, as Deputy Donohoe noted.

When one thinks of the Seanad, the names of former Senators such as the former President, Mary Robinson, W.B. Yeats and, much later, his son, Michael, who was leader of the Fianna Fáil Party in the Seanad for many years, come to mind. The late environmentalist and Senator, Mr. Éamon de Buitléar, was ahead of his time in trying to stimulate debate and interest in the environment, heritage and cultural issues.

The Taoiseach and Tánaiste want to avoid proper debate of this issue for specific reasons. They fear such a debate could expose how little thinking, debate, research or consideration went into the proposal to abolish the Seanad. The Government intends to put before the people a major change which would damage the Constitution but has not provided any significant supporting documentation or research in advance of the legislation being brought before the Legislature. This is the first time in the history of the State that such a proposal has come before the Oireachtas without significant research or supporting documentation.

Let us return to the fateful night of a Fine Gael Party fund-raising dinner at which the then beleaguered Fine Gael leader, Deputy Enda Kenny, announced his new policy of abolishing the Seanad. What research had he and his team done to develop this new approach? Only three months before his announcement, the then Deputy made a speech at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties in which he extolled the virtues of Seanad reform. Fine Gael has been busily trying to dismiss his comments in County Donegal by arguing that his script did not specifically refer to the Seanad. The party cannot, however, deny the content of the then Deputy Kenny’s interview on “Morning Ireland” the following day, 24 July 2009, in which he specifically stated he opposed the abolition of the Seanad, adding the following:

“I see a different role for the Seanad here. I would change the electoral system and give every graduate a vote here … There is a real need for proper scrutiny of European legislation. There is a need to have a forum for MEPs. There is a need to challenge the Seanad in the work that it does. Many people feel that it has just been a cosy house for far too long … It has got real potential but it has got to be challenged in that sense.

I do not believe any practising politician would disagree with the views the Taoiseach expressed at that time. He indicated that giving every graduate a vote in Seanad elections was one possible change. The Fianna Fáil Party Deputy for County Cavan immediately preceding my election was the late Tánaiste, Mr. John Wilson. While serving as Minister for Education, Mr. Wilson proposed in a referendum to extend the franchise for university graduates in Seanad elections beyond graduates of Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland. Sadly, this proposal was never acted on or put into effect.

The then Deputy Kenny made his speech in Donegal in late July 2009. What happened in August and September 2009 that he turned from a reformer to an abolitionist? The answer is straightforward: it was down to opinion polls and, as Deputy Tuffy said earlier, being populist. He saw his popularity rating go down while that of the Labour Party leader and now Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, was rising. He and his advisers scurried around to find a policy that might make their leader look tough, hard and decisive. We are now having a referendum on the basis of a promise made for pure political reasons. The proposal before us is not as a result of some reforming zeal or great vision. It is the product of a leader in trouble looking for something he could do or say to dispel the attacks on his leadership. Those attacks were coming from his own front bench. This is not how to make policy and it most assuredly is not a basis for playing with the fundamental law of this land, Bunreacht na hÉireann.

Deputy Donohoe rightly spoke about how Bunreacht na hÉireann has served our people so well. Last year to mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution in July 1937 and its enactment by the end of December of that year, I recall hearing a report of a major conference in University College Dublin on the importance of Bunreacht na hÉireann. Most of the attendees were constitutional law experts from outside the country, which shows the standing of our Constitution internationally. Yet, here we are with a large section of the Constitution being carved out for sacrifice upon the altar of the Taoiseach’s political intentions.
Not that the Labour Party leadership is in a much better place. The Tánaiste somehow conveniently forgets his party’s 2011 manifesto which specifically stated: “We will be proposing to the Constitutional Convention that the Seanad be abolished.” Perhaps Labour Members might tell us when they decided to ignore this commitment and ignore the Constitutional Convention. Was it at the same time as they chose to ignore all their other election commitments?

There are few areas of political reform in Ireland that have been more talked about than Seanad reform, but all we have done is talked, and that applies to every political party. Some 12 reports have examined and recommended Seanad reform over many decades, but successive Governments of all political hues have failed to act on their findings. The mistake has not been talking about reform; the mistake has been not doing it. This should not be a party political issue. Governments of all political hues have failed to act. Rather than looking to abolish the Seanad, we should be working together, both in the Oireachtas and at the Constitutional Convention, to agree a structure for a radically reformed Seanad that is truly open and accountable to the people with a franchise for the people at large and outside our jurisdiction.

Approximately 156,000 people are currently registered to vote in Seanad elections, most of these on just the university panels – but only about 35% of these ever cast their ballot. It is within our power to design a Seanad that would represent 20 times that number, a Seanad where more than 3 million people are entitled to vote, comprising people across Ireland, North and South, and those who have been forced to leave this country. As the Private Member’s Bill on Seanad reform tabled by Senators Zappone and Quinn has shown, it is entirely possible for the Oireachtas to extend the franchise for the Seanad without any need for a referendum. The problem with Seanad reform is not a lack of ideas, proposals or options. On the contrary, if anything there are too many options. The issue is with the political will and commitment to decide on a new structure and run with it.
As a Deputy who represents two of the southern Ulster Border counties, I believe we should be using the opportunity now to offer people in the North an opportunity to vote in Seanad elections. We should be seeking ways of extending politics beyond the old boundaries and limitations and reaching out to those in the North, those who have been forced to emigrate over the years and to the “new Irish” who have come to live and work among us. That was a view put forward very strongly by the Acting Chairman’s constituency colleague, the Minister, Deputy Howlin, when he was Minister for the Environment in 1995. What he said in the Seanad at that time was absolutely correct.