Mr. President, yesterday afternoon I had the honor of attending the annual Speaker’s Luncheon celebrating the long and enduring partnership between the Irish and American people. Among the guests of honor were the President and Vice President and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. And this past Saturday, St. Patrick’s Day, I joined Prime Minister Kenny, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to march in Chicago’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. As one of the 40 million Americans of Irish descent, the chance to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Prime Minister of Ireland twice in four days is a rare joy.
Last evening, I joined many other friends of Ireland at a reception at the White House, where the President and the Taoiseach raised another toast to the special relationship between our two nation. And this past Saturday, St. Patrick’s Day, I joined Prime Minister Kenny, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to march in Chicago’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. As one of the 40 million Americans of Irish descent, the chance to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Prime Minister of Ireland three times in four days is a rare joy.
St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago
At the parade on Saturday, Prime Minister Kenny hailed Chicago as “the most American of American cities.” It is also the most Irish of American cities, home to the largest population of Irish-Americans in the United States. On St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago, the river and the beer both run green and it seems that everyone is Irish either by heritage or simply by osmosis.
Ireland’s contributions to America
There is good reason that Americans of all backgrounds embrace St. Patrick’s Day with such enthusiasm. From our earliest days as a nation, America and Ireland and America have been united by unbreakable bonds of friendship and family and by a shared commitment to liberty and freedom.
In fact, there might not be a United States of America were it not for the Irish. That is not just y my opinion. That was the assessment of General George Washington and of Britain’s Lord Mountjoy, who, in a speech to Parliament declared plainly, “We have lost America through the Irish.”
The largest ethnic group to sign the Declaration of Independence were those with Irish roots, Charles Dunlop of County Tyrone printed the first copies, and the first man to read it before Congress was Charles Thomson of Derry, Secretary of the Continental Congress.
When the Continental Congress was in desperate need of finances, supporters in Dublin, Cork, and other Irish cities took up collections to help the struggling new nation. Irish-born generals ranked among Washington’s most trusted officers and Irish soldiers formed the backbone of Washington’s army. At Valley Forge, it is estimated that almost half the army was Irish.
In the more than two centuries since then, America has been enriched immeasurably by the contributions of the Irish and Irish-Americans in every field and every walk of life.
Twenty American Presidents – nearly half – can trace their lineage to Ireland, from George Washington to Barack Obama of the Kearneys of Moneygall. And the contributions go both ways. Just as the sons of Erin helped make George Washington America’s first president, it was a son of America, Brooklyn-born Eamonn deValera, who, in 1921, became the first president of a free Ireland.
Irish E3 Visas
In December, Senators Schumer, Leahy and I introduced an amendment that recognizes the special relationship between the United States and Ireland. Our Irish E3 visa amendment would allow a small number of Irish citizens – 10,500 a year – to work in America for two years, pay taxes and contribute to Social Security.
Our proposal is an amendment to the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which passed the House last November with overwhelming bipartisan support. Shortly after we introduced our amendment, my colleague from Illinois, Senator Kirk, and Senator Brown of Massachusetts introduced a similar measure.
Our proposal is a common-sense measure that would improve the fairness and efficiency of our immigration system and further strengthen America’s special relationship with Ireland, a nation to whom we owe so much.
Our proposal has the support of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform headed by my friend Billy Lawless of Chicago, and many other organizations.
All 53 Democratic Senators – a solid majority of this Senate – have also pledged their support for our proposal. Despite this broad support inside and outside of Congress, at this time there is an objection on the Republican side to passing our bill.
We want to work with our Republican colleagues to break this impasse and create the Irish E3 visas this year. As Prime Minister Kenny has said, Ireland’s economy will recover from its current difficulties. But with Irish emigration higher than it has been in decades, it is in the interests of both Ireland and America that we act now, without delay, to create a fair and legal way for Irish citizens to work temporarily in America.
Support for Ireland is a bipartisan American tradition
Twenty-nine years ago, Speaker Tip O’Neill hosted the first St. Patrick’s Day luncheon in Congress. His special guest at that first Speaker’s St. Patrick’s Day Luncheon was another Irish American leader who said, when he visited Ireland, “Today I come back to you as a descendant of people who were buried here in pauper's graves.”
That special guest was President Ronald Reagan and that first Speaker’s Luncheon was arranged to try to ease tensions between the two leaders, who embodied very different political traditions, but who shared a love of Ireland and of their Irish heritage.
The plan worked. While Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill never did see eye-to-eye on politics, they formed a respectful relationship that enabled them to work together in America’s interest. So I ask our Republican friends: Let us walk in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill and work together to pass the Irish E3 visa bill this year.