The Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore arrived in Washington D.C. last Thursday, 11 July, the day after House Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting to determine their response to the passage of the US Senate immigration reform bill that passed two weeks ago. It passed by 68 to 32 after the addition of the Hoeven-Corker amendment, which, among other things, increases spending and enforcement on the border, a move that was seen as crucial in securing 14 Republican votes. The focus now lies squarely on the House of Representatives where members are still scrambling to respond to the Senate proposal.
While not constitutionally mandated, the majority Republican Party abides by its own Hastert Rule in the house that dictates that no bill will be brought to the floor for a vote if ‘a majority of the majority’ do not support it.
Despite a strong coalition of business, unions, faith communities and law enforcement calling for immigration reform, some Republicans are arguing that it is just not an issue for their constituents and do not see the need to rush to a vote.
Most Republicans are in safe districts and worry more about a right wing contender from their own party in a primary run off than they do a Democratic opponent at a general election. Those in the Tea Party right are loathe to any mention of immigration reform, which they see as amnesty for people who broke the law by coming here illegally.
However the party leadership knows only too well that their national aspirations and chances of retaking the White House depend on passing immigration reform and appealing more to the growing Hispanic electorate, which swept President Obama to a second term. Latinos have jumped from 5 to 11 per cent of the voting public and fell 70 to 30 in favor of Obama. Republicans were viewed as being anti-immigrant with their calls for the self-deportation of the 11 million undocumented.
Given the electoral college system that elects a new president and understanding that most elections are decided by key swing states and not the popular vote, you can see why Republicans are concerned. The big question then is whether the party responds to local politics or plays a bigger game.
Amid this the Tánasite travelled to Washington to meet with leaders in the Republican Party, including Congressmen Paul Ryan, Peter King, Bob Goodlatte (Chairman of the Judiciary Committee) and Kevin Mc Carthy, Majority Whip, Senator John Mc Cain and Speaker Boehner’s Chief of Staff. He also met with long time friend to the Irish Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) who co-sponsored the Irish E-3 Visa. He was in town to stress the importance of immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented and the Irish E3 Visa. Later that evening he met me, Dan Dennehy from the AOH, Celine Kennelly from the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform and Manus Cooney, Republican advocate for the Irish, who recently visited Galway. It is safe to say that much work needs to be done to educate the House Republicans that this is not just a Latino issue but signs are there that they are ready to move on legislation.
Experts agree that the house will be a tougher fight than the Senate, where Republicans may insist on passing several piecemeal pieces of legislation that deal with border security and the undocumented rather than a sweeping comprehensive bill but momentum is building. Unlike the last attempt to pass the Kennedy-Mc Cain immigration bill in 2006, immigration reform boasts a much broader coalition of supporters and critically has the support of most of the Republican leadership with their eye on the White House in 2016. The upcoming mid-terms in 2014 will also have a role to play in pushing something through by the end of 2013, as no one on either side of the aisle wants such a divisive and politically hot potato to mar the elections.
The Irish will have their part to play and Irish groups are already mobilizing across the country. Time will tell if that gift of the gab for which we are famous can get the job done.
Galway native Billy Lawless owns and runs Illinois establishments The Gage and Henri and is the Chairman of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform. Since moving to the US in 1998, he has dedicated considerable time and effort to highlighting the plight of undocumented immigrants.