President Trump lauded the contribution of Irish immigrants Thursday during St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Washington, but he and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny also wrestled with thorny questions about the administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
Mr. Kenny has been pressing U.S. officials for special treatment for the estimated 50,000 Irish illegal immigrants in America, most of whom overstayed visas and remain in the country for years.
They don’t suffer the same stigma as Hispanic illegal immigrants but face the same peril of deportation or being barred from returning to the U.S. if they travel home, and pressure on them has intensified under Mr. Trump’s get-tough policies.
“We’re here today to celebrate America’s commitment to Ireland and the tremendous contributions, and I know it well, the Irish immigrants and their descendants have made right here in the United States and throughout the world,” Mr. Trump said at the annual “Friends of Ireland” luncheon at the Capitol, a St. Patrick’s Day tradition in Washington since the 1950s.
In his remarks at the luncheon, Mr. Kenny, whose Irish title is Taoiseach, broached the issue of illegal immigration.
“On this day when we remember St. Patrick, himself an immigrant twice over to our shores, I urge you to look sympathetically at this issue,” he said in remarks at the luncheon. “We would like this to be sorted. It would remove a burden of so many people that they can stand out in the light and say, ‘Now I am free to contribute to America as I know I can.’ And that’s what people want.”
Mr. Kenny also raised the plight of Irish illegal immigrants at a bilateral meeting with the president earlier in the Oval Office.
Afterwards, Mr. Kenny said the president was surprised to learn that there were 50,000 Irish illegal immigrants in the U.S.
“I think he might have felt that that might have been a higher figure,” he told reporters at the White House.
The push to accommodate the Irish is a small wrinkle in the illegal immigration mess that Mr. Trump has promised to clean up.
Irish make up a tiny fraction of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.
They also are less likely to face deportation. In 2014, 33 Irish were deported, compared to 177,000 Mexicans, according to government statistics compiled by Irish Central.
Mr. Trump’s strong stance on illegal immigration has stoked fears on both sides of the Atlantic.
“There is fear and there is concern about this president and what is he going to do,” said Caro Kinsella, an immigration lawyer based in Florida who has duel citizenship in the U.S. and Ireland. “A lot of these people have families and friends in Ireland, so it is a wider-ranging problem. It’s not just the 50,000 in the states.”
She said that Mr. Trump’s executive orders that target for deportation illegal immigrants who commit serious crime also threaten people who overstay visas, putting many of the Irish illegal immigrants in jeopardy.
Irish illegal immigrants are not seeking amnesty, said Ms. Kinsell, but hope for leniency that would allow them to pay a fine and get on a path to legal status.
At the luncheon Mr. Trump vowed that the bonds between the two countries would endure.
The president recited an Irish proverb: “Always remember to forget the friends who proved untrue, but never forget to remember those who have stuck by you.”
He said the quote was particularly true in politics.
“The people of the United States and the people of Ireland have stuck together,” he said.
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