28 November 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Measures announced by US President Barack Obama this week that alleviate the problematic situation of undocumented Irish people Stateside will have gladdened the hearts of a good many families in our circulation area.

There are many Co Monaghan people among the thousands of Irish in America over whom the shadow of deportation has long hung because of their twilight legal status.

That law-abiding immigrants with established family ties making productive contributions to the economy will be able to live and work in the US in the future without looking over their shoulders is a humane and practical response to a problem that had long overrun the capacity of the enforcement agencies there to monitor and regulate in anything more than an arbitrary fashion.

The humanity of the decision will be demonstrated in time by the alleviation of the personal distress that was the lot of Irish people hitherto prevented from travelling between their country of employment and their country or origin for fear of being denied re-entry to the USA. Many important family bonds in Co Monaghan and throughout this country can now be renewed and reinforced as a result of the Obama directive.

The practicality of the measure seems self-evident. The estimated five million illegal immigrants in the US represented a tide that not even the most draconian of policing and enforcement policies was ever going to turn. The President’s instruction to the relevant agencies to concentrate on deporting “felons, not families” is a recognition that legitimately employed and tax-paying immigrants are a productive asset rather than a nagging affliction for a country whose history and prosperity has been constructed on the endeavours of the “huddled masses” who have long thronged to its shores from afar.

Despite this decision’s resonance with some of the defining cultural traits of the nation to which it applies, it will probably generate as much opposition as approval in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. A major piece of legislation seeking to rightify the overwhelmed US immigration system was shot down in Congress by vociferous Republican opposition, forcing President Obama to resort to his office’s powers of executive action – through which he can issue directions on policy matters without the endorsement of Congress – in order to make the changes he deemed necessary.

As in Europe, immigration in America has become a hot political topic, and it courts popularity to take the tough line that some Republicans now espouse, and pander to the perception of immigrants in general as predatory outsiders snatching the bread out of the mouths of blue-blooded “true” citizens. Such intolerance can sadly pervade even the most liberal of societies when economic times grow lean.

President Obama is to be applauded for setting his face against such populist rhetoric, even if his announced measures are somewhat ad hoc and seem inherently discriminatory against those members of the undocumented community who by lifestyle choice or sexual orientation are not in conventional family relationships or who do not have children.

Ultimately the President’s measures may open only a temporary window of opportunity that could be slammed shut by a future Republican administration. But the immediate ease of mind they hold out to thousands of Irish people in the US and their families at home will earn Mr Obama the Gaelic equivalent of the gratitude inherent in the oft-referenced line from Hamlet: “For this relief, much thanks.”

One of the effects of the Obama decision has been to focus attention in this country on our own immigration policy. A report published this week suggests that there are somewhere between 20,000-26,000 undocumented migrants on Irish shores, the rough approximation itself eloquent of the tenuous existence and fringe social status many of them are forced to inhabit.

While the figure seems miniscule in comparison to the scale of the immigration problem in the US, the disputed statistics for our own unregularised migrants articulate the inefficiencies and inequalities of our existing naturalisation and protection structures, which continue to operate on a painstakingly slow case-by-case basis that makes little inroads into the numbers, and perpetuates rather than alleviates the human suffering that the facts and figures mask.

A call made this week by Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan/Monaghan Brendan Smith on this subject makes patent sense. In welcoming the Obama announcement, Deputy Smith in his capacity as Party Spokesman for Foreign Affairs and Trade appealed for legislation to be introduced to create a more streamlined process for dealing with asylum and protection applications.

Any measure that would reduce the cruelly protracted waiting time that asylum-seekers must endure for their applications to be processed would be welcome – and Deputy Smith’s call is advantaged by the existence of a 2010 Bill his party frameworked in this regard, providing the basis for some legislatively progress to be made comparatively quickly.

In this country as in America there is also a body of misguided populist opposition to measures that would confer enhanced status on the migrant population, and a body of opportunistic politicians ready to exploit it. But the principles of humanity and practicality inherent in the decision of President Obama, which Irish people have welcomed and applauded, have surely equally pertinent application to our own immigration situation.

Deputy Smith’s call has the force of compassion as well as the merits of common sense in its favour. It is one that the Minister for Justice, in the interests of justice, should expediently heed.

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