Ambassador pleads: Let our immigrants work in USA

Anne Anderson, Ireland's ambassador to the United States, nodded to this year's honorees at Philadelphia's Irish American Business Chamber and Network luncheon - Gregory McStravick, president of SAP U.S.; Ann Claffey Baiada, director of Bayada Home Health Care; Denis O'Brien, CEO of Exelon Utilities, each of whom can trace their Irish ancestors, county and parish - and made this plea: Let another wave of immigrants help build this country.

"Our best guess is we have in the region of 50,000 undocumented Irish in the United States," Anderson told the full-ballroom luncheon crowd at the Bellevue on Thursday. "Most are employed. They pay taxes. They are upright, God-fearing citizens. But they live in the shadows. Many of you know, from personal contact, the human toll, the inability to get back to Ireland, to their families, for a wedding or a funeral."

Why don't they get their work papers? "It is extraordinarily difficult for Irish people to gain access to work in the United States legally," Anderson said. She called it an "unintended consequence" of the nearly 50-year-old U.S. visa-allocation system, which has left these new-wave job-seekers "with only an infinitesimal share" of the work permits they seek.

"We want a legal pathway for immigration," Anderson said. Reforms advanced in Congress last fall, she noted, but were stalled by an inter-Republican brawl, pro-immigrant and business interests against anti-immigration nativists.

Anderson would rather the Irish stayed home and worked there. But since the 2008 financial crisis blew up Ireland's poorly managed banks, there are too few jobs, especially outside the capital, Dublin. (Though McStravick says SAP plans to expand its 1,200-strong Irish software workforce. Anderson credited a growing number of American firms for investing in the Irish Republic. They are drawn by low taxes and low-cost skilled labor.)

The Irish have long American ties, yet they still have to plead. The Brazilian and Nigerian ambassadors could make similar speeches, even if their more recently arrived communities can't count as many CEO descendants yet.

Not all the world's doors are shut. On her last trip home to County Tipperary, the barman in her quiet hometown pub told Anderson his young customers had mostly left for Australia, whose more liberal labor rules have attracted eager Irish workers.

"It's great for Australia so many Irish people going there. But they should have the opportunity to come here," Anderson said. "We have to get this thing moving again. Explain to your member of Congress that this immigration issue wears an Irish face. We have been waiting for a long time."

(From my column in today's Philadelphia Inquirer)