Not all illegal immigrants into the U.S. are Mexican and there’s more to immigration law reform than getting the Hispanic vote.
I learned this at a program in Chicago sponsored by an organization called Ireland Network Chicago, or IN-Chicago, where the fervor for reform matched that at any gathering in the city’s Mexican neighborhoods.
There are some 50,000 undocumented Irish in the United States, according to the best estimates, most in New York, Chicago and other major cities. There may be as many as 70,000 undocumented Poles in Chicago alone. Altogether, the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country include no less than 650,000 European citizens.
There are even more Asians, some 1.5 million persons from the Philippines, India, China, Vietnam and other Asian nations. All have a stake in the Congressional maneuvering going on now over a bill providing comprehensive immigration law reform, which would both give these immigrants legal status and provide a path to eventual citizenship.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs was asked to take part in this IN-Chicago program because of our recent task force report, “U.S. Economic Competitiveness at Risk,” which urged legal reforms to give legal status to workers, encourage foreign entrepreneurs, keep talented students here and provide a path to citizenship.
Like much of the immigration debate, this report focused largely on the millions of relatively unskilled Hispanic immigrants, many of whom risked their lives to cross the border, and the super-skilled academics and researchers who may get their education here but are then forced to leave, instead of putting that education to use here.
The others – the Europeans, Asians and Africans – mostly entered the U.S. legally, as students or tourists or on work visas, but they stayed when those visas ran out. Today, they live in the shadows in most major cities.
One of the two panelists at the IN-Chicago program was Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who is leading the Senate push for immigration law reform. Durbin, whose Illinois constituency includes many less-educated and often unemployed workers, stresses the need to make sure that immigrants don’t take jobs from Americans. But he’s also popular in the Irish community here and a supporter of legal status for undocumented Irish.
The other panelist was a well-known Chicago Irishman named Billy Lawless Sr., who left his native Galway 15 years ago, became a pub owner in the Wrigley Field neighborhood and now owns two of the best restaurants on Michigan Avenue. He quickly became a leader in the city’s Irish community, campaigning for undocumented Irish here, and then expanded that to a major role in the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which represents all undocumented immigrants.
As a restaurant owner, Lawless sees a lot of undocumented immigrants who show up looking for jobs. Many, he says, are under 40 and single. Lacking legal status, they can’t improve their education, open businesses or even look for better jobs.
Mostly, he says, they’re stuck here, afraid to go home to Ireland even for family emergencies because they know they’ll never be allowed to come back to the States.
So why not go home? Lawless says most of them, like the Mexican and other immigrants, came here to work, to look for better jobs than are available in Ireland. The Irish economy boomed spectacularly in the early part of the last decade, then crashed even more spectacularly when the recession hit. Thousands of young Irish citizens are leaving now, he said, but most are going to Canada and Australia, not the U.S.
Irish advocates here are pressing for an E-3 visa, which would give preference to thousands of would-be Irish immigrants. Currently, the U.S. gives these E-3 visas only to Australians, as a result of an act of Congress when the two nations signed a free-trade agreement. Ireland’s trading relations with the U.S. are governed by the European Union, but Irish here want this preference extended to their citizens.
There are a lot of votes hanging on the immigration law debate. The swing of Hispanic voters to the Democrats in last November’s presidential election has received the most attention: some pundits say that, unless the Republicans embrace comprehensive reform, this Hispanic vote will condemn them to permanent minority status nationally.
But Durbin pointed out that the second biggest bloc of solid Democratic voters, apart from African Americans, were Asian Americans, indicating the power of the immigration debate in that community. Hispanic-Americans, while solidly pro-Democratic, ranked third.
What seems to be happening is that the people of the world are on the move, but the laws lag behind. Thousands and millions of persons want to work in the United States: this country needs their skills and brains, but forces them to be here illegally, or not at all. Similarly, the U.S. needs to send more of its citizens into the world, but restrictive laws in other countries keep many of our best and brightest from learning about a globalizing world that will determine their future.
There has to be a better way.