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Ahead of St. Patrick's Day, an Irish Push for Immigration Overhaul

Can the luck of the Irish help overhaul America’s immigration system?  Irish leaders and members of the Irish American community think so.  

In a St. Patrick’s Day lunch hosted by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, on Friday, Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, stressed his support for restructuring the American immigration system.  

Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., Chair of the Friends of Ireland who attended the lunch, told Roll Call, “John brought up the fact how the Taoiseach was hammering him on immigration.”  

King said the Irish prime minister responded, saying the Irish support Boehner’s immigration principles and “will do whatever they can” to advance them.  

However, there appears to be little support for Boehner’s immigration principles among his GOP colleagues .  

Despite this obstacle, some believe the Irish lobbying effort can have some effect on immigration policy. “It can make a difference,” said King.  “Irish Americans who do believe that there should be immigration reform should make it clear that it’s not just a Central American or Hispanic issue, that it involves immigrants from all countries.”  

According to the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, there are an estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants living in the United States.  

King admitted that undocumented Irish comprise a small percentage of illegal immigrants, but said “it certainly helps to show that there’s more than one group or more than one political bloc” lobbying for an immigration overhaul.  

The Irish prime minister pressed for immigration reform throughout his annual visit to the United States ahead of St. Patrick’s Day.  

At an American Ireland Fund event Thursday night, Kenny said,  “We hope that in the time ahead, the American representatives will be able to move that structure in a way that’s effective, practical, and will give people the opportunity to live and support their family.”  

Kenny’s statement elicited enthusiastic applause from the crowd of 800 who gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building for the American Ireland Fund’s National Gala, which honored Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.  

Earlier Thursday afternoon, Kenny met with members of Congress and stressed his desire for an immigration overhaul.  

Rep. Jim McGovern, D- Mass., who attended the meeting, told Roll Call, “There’s a special relationship between Ireland and the United States and I think pressure from the Taoiseach on this Congress is especially important.”  

Irish lobbyists were also out in full force this week with the same goal of motivating House Republicans to pass immigration legislation.  

“We were on the Hill as part of the movement for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Celine Kennelly, vice president of the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center.  “A lot of Congress members don’t know that it’s an Irish issue,” she added.  

Kennelly said 50 community leaders lobbied all of the House Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, as well as Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.  

According to Kennelly, the lobbyists had a productive meeting with Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlate, R-Va., and were also well received by McCarthy’s staff and California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham.  

New York Democrat Rep. Eliot L. Engel, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed that many of his colleagues do not realize the extent of undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States.  

“A lot of these young people who don’t have documents are Irish,” said Engel.  “Many of them live in my district. … They want a chance to better themselves economically, they want an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.  And they don’t want to have to worry about being deported.”