The battle for US immigration reform
By Simon Carswell, The Irish Times
Sitting in front of congressman Paul Ryan on his desk is a poster, Advice to Irish Immigrants, written by the Irish government and posted on ships leaving Ireland for the United States in the 1850s.
“In remote parts of America, an industrious youth may follow any occupation without being looked down upon or sustain loss of character, and he may rationally expect to raise himself in the world by his labour,” the sign reads. “In America, a man’s success must altogether rest with himself.”
Ryan’s Irish ancestors may have read the sign when they left Co Kilkenny for a new life in the US in 1851 in the wave of Irish people fleeing the Great Famine.
The Republican from Wisconsin has produced the sign during discussions about immigration reform, a hot political topic on Capitol Hill. The sign describes “the Irish dream and what many families came to America for”, he says.
“I believe in immigration. I believe in the melting pot. I believe in the American ideal and my citing of that sign is my own personal relationship to it, from my own family’s background: that is what makes our country great and strong,” he says.
Many of the 50,000 Irish immigrants estimated to be living illegally in the US have, contrary to what the sign says, been unable to rise fully in the country by their labour.
Many have worked hard, established careers and set up businesses and, in a perverse quirk of law, even pay US taxes and social security but remain “undocumented” within the country’s immigration system.
Immigration reform, a priority for President Barack Obama, has entered a critical phase as the Republican-led House of Representatives debates the issue. Ryan, Mitt Romney’s Republican running mate in last year’s presidential election, has emerged as a champion for immigration reform within his party in the House. The US government’s lower house is considering new legislation after the Senate passed a cross-party comprehensive immigration bill in a 68 to 32 vote.
Ryan sees himself as a “bridge-builder” who can rally support among conservative Republicans in Congress. Many of them represent older, white voters, who fear for American jobs and are anxious about the changing colour and demographic of the American population from further waves of illegal immigrants and the strain they may put on government finances.
Ryan’s conservative credentials and ongoing war on government spending makes him popular among conservatives in the House-Republican caucus and within the far-right Tea Party.
“I am just trying to bring our different factions together to come up with workable legislation. I believe there is consensus within our party on how best to solve our immigration problems,” he says.
Despite the cross-party support for the Senate bill, Ryan says the House will fix immigration their own way and take a slower, piecemeal approach, ensuring that border security and internal enforcement is strengthened to prevent more illegal workers entering the country in tandem with undocumented workers “coming out of the shadows”, paying fines and getting a type of probationary visa.
Ryan says illegal immigrants must go to the back of the line, behind legal immigrants. “We don’t want a system where a person who over-stayed their visa or crossed the border illegally is rewarded by having a faster pathway to citizenship than that legal immigrant who did things right,” he says.
“It puts too much discretion in the hands of the administration to determine border security. When the president is unilaterally delaying huge parts of his healthcare law without constitutional authority, it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think he could do that in other areas,” he says.
The new-found desire among more Republicans to fix the immigration system is, to many, linked to Romney’s poor showing among the growing number of Hispanic voters. Their overwhelming support for Barack Obama guaranteed him a second presidential term. Republicans, certainly at senior levels of the party, view immigration reform as essential if they are going to regain the White House.
“I don’t think we should do this if our primary reason is because it is good for politics,” says Ryan, who is tipped as a potential 2016 presidential contender. “We should be doing this because it is good policy.”
Ryan cites the economic benefits as a reason to pass immigration reform – moving to an economic-based immigration system will grow the working population and help cover the cost of a doubling in the US retired population as the Baby Boom generation become pensioners, he says.
House Republicans want to “fix this once and for all” without having to deal with millions more illegal immigrants 10 years from now, he says.
“There are too many national security threats and economic concerns to ignore. We just want to find where the consensus lies and get it right. I am cautiously optimistic that we can do that.”