Irish Independent, Saturday January 6th 2007, by Jason O'Brien
A NEW immigration bill that would allow an estimated 50,000 illegal Irish to remain in America while looking for legal residence could become law early next year.
Under current US law, Irish people without the correct papers must return to Ireland in order to seek legal status in the US.
But if a person has lived undocumented in America for more than six months then he or she is automatically barred from the US for three years. And if the undocumented period is more than a year, the ban lasts for a decade.
"It's one of the big issues that I've talked to Senator [Edward] Kennedy about and he's working hard on it," Niall O'Dowd, Chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR), said yesterday.
Democratic Senator Kennedy and Republican Senator John McCain are the two main architects of the new bill that is increasingly expected to be passed by the Senate in March. Living in the US has become increasingly fraught for illegals since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Returning to Ireland for holidays or funerals and then getting back into the US has become almost impossible.
The ILIR has been lobbying hard to ensure that the bill includes what is effectively a resurrection of a lapsed immigration law that allowed illegals to apply for regular status while remaining in the country.
"At the moment you can be looking at 10 years out of the country before you can re-apply and that's not on," Mr O'Dowd said. "It's one of our biggest issues to fight for.
"And we want to ensure that if there is a visa bill passed that it is easy to implement, that it not something that creates further bureaucratic complications."
With the recent elections giving control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats, there is growing hope among illegal Irish that this is the year for change. "If we don't get immigration reform in 2007, we'll never get it. It's as simple as that," Mr O'Dowd said. "We're pushing very hard. We have a national lobby day on March 7 to which we're going to invite leading Irish politicians to come out for."
If the bill passes both houses, it should land on President George Bush's desk to be signed towards the end of this year. And then Irish politicians will be asked to get to work.
"The Taoiseach has been very, very good on this issue," Mr O'Dowd said. "And at the end of the day whatever bill goes through the Senate and the House and ends up on the President's desk, we will want strong pressure from Dublin to say, 'we think this is a very good step for our citizens'."
The group also has a longer-term plan to reform legal immigration from Ireland to the US. Of 1.2m green cards issued last year by the US, only 2,000 were given to Irish people. "We want it so that there is a situation whereby Irish people can come to America and Americans can go to work in Ireland on an equal basis," Mr O'Dowd said.
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