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Friday, March 16, 2012

Immigration Policy and Local Politics: IRE Act

In a national election year immigration policy is one tool among many for domestic politicians to attempt to garner votes.  Most of what hits the media are harsh initiatives to restrict immigration in the name of saving domestic jobs or calming an electorate fearful of being swamped by strange people with funny accents and odd customs. People like me. :-)

But behind the scenes the situation is much more complicated.  Business is certainly not interested in restricting immigration and they contribute heavily to campaigns.  Many sending countries want their nationals to be allowed entry so they can send remittances back to the home country and they actively lobby the politicians in the host country.  Citizens themselves have family and friends who are immigrants and they will vote against anti-immigrant candidates.  My daughter, for example, was quite impressed by Marine Le Pen right up until she learned about her views on immigration and dual nationality - she is not about to vote for someone who may cause harm to her immigrant mother.  In the U.S. the Republican party is committing political suicide in a similar manner - there are many Hispanic voters in the U.S. who are not likely to vote for someone who suggests that their friends and family members ought to be handcuffed and deported.

A few very smart politicians have figured this out and, instead of joining the rhetoric against immigrants, they are finding ways to use immigration policy to their own ends (getting re-elected).  Just as initiatives against immigrants may play well on the national stage, they see that initiatives for immigrants may play very well locally if they are properly targeted to please an electorate who are members of a particular diaspora.

That seems to be the driver behind a little known bill in the U.S. Congress called the Irish Immigration Recognition and Encouragement Act of 2011 (IRE Act) which would allocate 10,500 visas to Irish nationals wishing to come to live and work in the United States.  This is basically an extension of another visa program called E-3 which is right now only available to Australian nationals.  Yes, my friends, in the middle of a hot national debate over immigration, some elected representatives are trying to increase it.  Who is sponsoring this bill?  Two senators, Scott Brown (Republican-Massachussetts) and Mark Kirk (Republican-Illinois).  Both these states have large Irish-American populations and this bill (as well as another being proposed by Senator Charles Schumer) seems to be quite popular.  In this article Senator Brown explains the rationale behind the bill:
“This measure is crucially important to an Irish community that maintains strong historical and cultural ties with the United States,” stated Brown.
Added Brown: “My bill would provide a legal pathway for the thousands of Irish that wish to come to this country legally. It would allocate 10,500 visas per year for Irish nationals under the E-3 visa program, which is currently only available to Australia.
Most importantly, it does not seek to add controversial provisions that would endanger our national security or rule of law. With the bipartisan passage of H.R. 30l2 in the House of Representatives, the Senate has an opportunity to make significant strides towards fixing some of the problems in our legal immigration system.
I strongly believe that the Irish E-3 visa provisions must be included in these negotiations in order to correct the long standing barriers to Irish immigration to the United States and recognize the unique relationship between our countries.”
What I find fascinating about Brown's words is how he has crafted his argument.  Correct me if I'm wrong but what he seems to be saying is 1. the U.S. and Ireland have a long and special relationship 2. increased Irish immigration will not pose a national security or legal problem for the U.S. and 3. the bill is necessary to correct an injustice.  I will not comment on the first two but the last is simply ridiculous. True, American immigration policy changed in the last century to be more diverse and less favorable to European immigration but, nevertheless, today there are around 41 million Americans of Irish descent (one out of five Americans).  Historically the group that has had the most barriers to immigration was not the Irish (or other Europeans) but Asians who in some cases could not even apply for citizenship even when they were allowed entry into the U.S.

I don't want to be too hard on Senator Brown.  His job is to represent his constituents and their interests.  Americans of Irish descent vote and are certainly entitled to ask him for measures that benefit them.  But it does raise some interesting questions.  For one thing this is not simply a domestic matter - there are two nations (the U.S. and Ireland) and one superstate (the EU) involved here.  Is it really to the benefit of Ireland and the EU that the U.S. "poach" their citizens, in particular those highly-qualified professional workers that the EU is trying to lure to Europe through programs like the Blue Card? Did the Senators that proposed this bill talk to anyone other than their local constituents before they proposed it?  What would be the reaction of the U.S. if a European state started a special visa program for highly-qualified American entrepreneurs using arguments very similar to Brown's.  In fact some EU states could go even farther and claim that some Americans, by virtue of their descent, are still Europeans on some level and that the U.S. government should be gracious and share their talents and productivity.  Now, wouldn't that be an interesting idea?

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