Politics & Policy

Amnesty for Irish Immigrants?

Senator Scott Brown (R., Mass.)
Scott Brown walks a fine line in the immigration debate.

Citing his opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants, the Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee endorsed Scott Brown for Senate six days before his election on January 19, 2010. Now, however, the committee is grumbling about Brown because of his recent proposal to offer 10,500 employment visas to Irish nationals.

On December 15, 2011, Brown, along with Senator Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), introduced the Irish Immigration Recognition and Encouragement Act. The bill would allow Irish nationals to receive E-3 visas, a type currently available only to Australians under a free-trade pact signed with that country in 2005. Only immigrants who work in “specialty occupations” — that is, jobs that require college degrees — are eligible for the visas, and they expire after two years, though recipients can get an unlimited number of extensions.

#ad#“We do not approve of a guest-worker program that would probably displace and replace over 10,000 American workers at a time of historic unemployment,” William Gheen, president of ALIPAC, tells National Review Online. Gheen says the committee will maintain its endorsement of Brown so long as he opposes illegal immigration. However, Brown’s effort and others to increase legal immigration to the U.S. are prompting the committee to consider changing its name to “Americans for Less Immigration.”

Brown introduced his bill in opposition to another piece of legislation, offered by Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), that would have been even worse for immigration opponents. Both were in response to a House bill, H.R. 3012, passed on November 29, 2011, that would scrap the per-country limits for employment-based immigrants and increase the per-country limits for family-based immigrants. That bill didn’t include an Irish provision, but the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform persuaded Schumer to include, in the Senate counterpart that he introduced on December 13, a provision that would have given automatic visa waivers to undocumented Irish workers. Brown’s bill specifically excluded such a provision and required them to return to Ireland to apply for the E-3 visas. On January 31, Schumer dropped the Irish-amnesty proviso from his bill to be in harmony with Brown’s.

Other conservatives have risen to Brown’s defense. Ray Flynn, an Irish Catholic Democrat who has endorsed the senator for reelection, tells NRO: “I think Scott Brown is really doing the very best he can to come up with a fair and equitable immigration policy. I think that [the bill is] a very positive step in the right direction.”

The bill’s backers argue that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which jettisoned a national-origins quota system that had been in place since the 1920s, unfairly disadvantaged Irish immigrants, and this bill would rectify that problem. Other immigration advocates say Brown’s bill is well intentioned but needs to be more comprehensive.

“We’re very pleased that the senator recognizes the need for more opportunity for foreign workers,” says Eva Millona, executive director of Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. But “the problem is not only with Irish immigrants; we think the system should be reformed for everyone.”

Irish Americans make up a quarter of Massachusetts’s population — the highest ratio of all 50 states — raising the suspicion that Brown is playing politics with the immigration system. But Flynn says Brown’s concern is sincere: “I know Scott Brown has spoken out on this issue in the past. He has a consistent interest in immigration issues.” For evidence, Flynn mentions that he took Brown to Irish Heritage Week in Dorchester, Mass., over a year ago to hear from Irish guest workers whose visas had expired.

In the Senate, Brown’s bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee, where it has stalled. Ranking member Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) put a hold on the House bill, but his spokeswoman Beth Levine says he supports a vote on Brown’s bill once it has received some modifications. “Senator Grassley continues to have concerns with the notion of playing favorites with certain countries and disregard for American workers in a time of such high unemployment, and will not likely vote for the Brown bill,” Levine adds in an email to NRO.

Immigration could play a major role in Brown’s reelection fight against likely Democratic nominee Elizabeth Warren. According to a January poll conducted for the anti-amnesty Federation for American Immigration Reform, 67 percent of Massachusetts voters believe illegal immigration negatively affects their state, and 67 percent oppose offering illegal aliens in-state tuition at public universities. Warren, however, supports in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and the DREAM Act, both of which Brown has opposed.

In addition, the senator supports Secure Communities, a federal program to share with immigration officials information on suspects arrested by local law enforcement. Warren has voiced reservations about the program, though she hasn’t taken a firm position on it.

While one might question the wisdom of piecemeal fixes to the immigration system, remember that Brown occupies one of the toughest political positions in the country: a Republican senator in a deep-blue state. So far, he’s treating the hot-button issue of immigration with plenty of care.

— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.

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