Irish Immigration Bill Raises Questions in Latino, Asian Communities


Irish Flag. (Agnieszka Bernacka/flickr)

Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) recently announced that an immigration bill he filed last year was “about to pop.”

The measure, dubbed the Irish immigration bill, would qualify Ireland for the E-3 visa program which currently applies exclusively to Australian nationals. The bill would increase the number of work visas allocated to the Irish by 10,500 per year.

Brown’s measure has been added to a broader bill introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) that would make it easier for high-skilled foreign workers to obtain work visas in the U.S. Schumer’s bill is a version of the Fairness for Highly Skilled Immigrants Act of 2011 (H.R. 3012) -which passed the House with broad bipartisan support in November.

Brown argued that this is a “no brainer” in his state where there is a strong demand for such a visa program because of “family and cultural ties.”

The senator, who is facing a tough re-election bid this November and stands to gain from the support of Massachusetts’ large Irish population, lobbied the powerful ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), to allow the piece of legislation to move forward and provide a legal pathway for Irish to come to the U.S.

“Supporters argue that the strong cultural ties between the US and Ireland should be recognized in immigration policy,” wrote Noah Bierman in the Boston Globe,  “especially as the Irish economy falters and thousands of skilled workers are clamoring for opportunity across the Atlantic.”

But why should the Irish get a special bill? Filipinos and Chinese have been in the United States since the 1700s, and the Philippines has had a “special bond” with the U.S. which continues to the present. The borders, citizens, economies, and politics of Mexico and the U.S. have been and will always be inextricably linked. Thousands of professionals from the Philippines, China, Mexico, and other nations also clamor for America’s promise of opportunity.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), Immigration Task Force Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, does not believe any one nationality should be favored.

“I would not support Senator Brown’s standalone bill to add Ireland to the E-3 visa program,” he said.

The author of the Reuniting Families Act (H.R. 1796), Honda would rather see comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the family-sponsored and employment-based visa backlogs in many nations, rather than just one.

Michael Innis-Jiménez, a University of Alabama professor and expert on Latino and Labor issues said focusing on just one ethnic group won’t fill the high and low-skilled gaps in the American workforce.

“Although I admire Scott’s advocacy for an extremely vibrant and influential ethnic and national group within his constituency of Massachusetts, the underlying problem is that the immigration system needs a complete overhaul,” Innis- Jiménez said.

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for lower levels of immigration tossed race into the mix, arguing that measures like Brown’s favor white immigrants.

“They’re basically upset because they don’t have the special privileges that they once had,” Beck told the Boston Globe, referring to Irish advocates. “They have to share those privileges with Latinos and Africans and Asians.”

Innis-Jiménez, who is of Irish and Mexican descent, admitted that he thinks race is a factor.

“Sure, I think race is always in play with national-level U.S. immigration policy,” he said. “But I think it is a bit more complicated.  It is also about economic class and political clout.  Few Americans are going to complain about more white, educated Irish immigrants. Most of them will end up in the Northeast.”

Tamar Jacoby, President and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national organization that links 25 state-based business coalitions and advocates for immigration reform, is just glad that steps, albeit small ones, are being taken to address the fraught and complex issue.

“After five years of people in Congress, and especially Republicans, not willing to touch immigration at all, I’m very encouraged – and this isn’t the only bill – to see some Republicans taking small bites of the apple,” she said.

There’s no hard evidence that Brown prefers one color of immigrants over another. Jacoby argues that the impetus behind Brown’s measure is purely political. “It’s not because Scott Brown’s a racist,” she said. “It’s because he has Irish people in his state and he needs to get re-elected.”

But Brown’s tough stance against unauthorized immigration and opposition to the DREAM Act which mainly impacts Latinos, raises suspicion and protest from other ethnic groups that are as much part of America’s history and future as the Irish.

Moreover, America’s sordid history of excluding, and at times oppressing, non-European immigrants has left a bad taste in the mouths of ethnic minorities.

Despite appearances, the U.S. remains the land of opportunity and promise. Millions worldwide want the chance to come and toil for their American dream. We should have clear-eyed, reasoned, and fair policy that picks foreign workers based on what our economy demands not on country of origin. Most certainly not on the color of skin.

At any rate, this entire discussion may be moot. Politico reports that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is opposing Brown’s pet bill out of concern that it could “hurt high-skilled American jobs.”  And this is an election year. No one will seriously attempt, much less pass, anything before November.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.