Brown’s immigration stance on shaky ground: His GOP colleagues hold key to fate of E3 visa bill in Senate

It came as no surprise that on Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s recent swing through Boston, he met with a politician named Kennedy. In this case it was the new Kennedy on the political block, Joseph P. Kennedy III, who is running for Congress. It used to be that all things Irish in these parts and in Washington, D.C., ran through Senator Ted Kennedy, but in a clear sign of just how much politics in Massachusetts and across the country have shifted in recent years, Kenny and Tanaiste (Irish Deputy Prime Minister) Eamon Gilmore were courting Senate Republican leaders Mitch McConnell, Charles Grassley, and Maine’s Susan Collins, among others.

The issue for Kenny and Ireland was, and is, an E3 visa bill that would allow 10,500 Irish a year to come to America with two-year non-immigrant visas renewable every two years, a process that already exists between Ireland and Australia. Aware that in the gridlocked, contentious US Senate, the Republicans have employed the filibuster in unprecedented and never-intended ways – yes, the Democrats used the same tactic to block George W. Bush, too, but never in the record numbers as McConnell’s defeat-Obama-no-matter-the-cost crew – the Irish government has turned to Scott Brown, the man who won the deceased Ted Kennedy’s seat, as the point man in the drive to push the E3 bill through the Senate.

Senator Brown, facing a strong challenge from Democrat Elizabeth Warren in a real, not a special, race, has championed the so-called “Irish bill” and guaranteed to the Boston Herald that because of his efforts, the bill was “ready to pop.” There’s nothing wrong with Brown using the issue as a means to court Massachusetts Irish votes. Politics smart and simple. Brown, however, who has proven adept at never taking a stand until he knows the turf beneath him is solid, might have promised more than he can deliver here. In fact, he has been backing away from his comments to the Herald.

Many local Irish-American leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, are not buying equivocation from Brown’s original stance, and various political observers speculate that failure to deliver on E3 could cost Brown votes. “It’s one thing to verbally come out and support it, which is great, but there has to be follow through,” said James Gallagher, head of the United Irish Counties of Massachusetts. “We’ve been led down the primrose path before.”

Brown’s chief obstacle is not the Senate Democrats. In fairness to his efforts, Brown has helped persuade 53 Democratic senators and a handful of Republicans to back the bill. As he knows full well, the legislation needs 60 to get past a filibuster, and that a filibuster would come from fellow Republicans who are virulently anti-immigrant. Republican Senator Charles Grassley, of Iowa, has hamstrung Brown’s efforts by holding up a combined hi-tech workers and Irish E3 visa bill, but Brown has been trying to persuade Grassley to compromise in the sSnate, leaning upon Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and powerful Texas Senator John Cornyn to get Grassley on board. Brown is also competing with Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, of New York, who also has an immigration bill with 53 Democrats supporting it. Perhaps ominously for Brown, Politico reports, “The powerful ranking Republican [Grassley] on the Senate Judiciary Committee is opposing Brown’s efforts to quickly pass a bill that could certainly help him in a state about a quarter of whose population has Irish roots.”

As the pressure mounts, Brown is working to broker a deal. He told the Herald and other outlets that he’s “working on using every mechanism and every means to address their concerns like I do on every bill.” He added, “I don’t do stuff based on campaign issues; I’ve been doing my job since I got here.”

Still, he backed off his claims to the Herald, a paper that is deeply supportive of all things Scott Brown, that he was close to passage of the E3 bill. John Kerry has often been castigated by the Boston media of all stripes because of his penchant at times for murky, equivocal phrasing, but in words that rival Kerry’s ill-fated first-he-was-for-it, then-he-was-against-it gaffe in the 2004 presidential race, Brown offered this of the E3 measure: “I said the issue is about to pop; I never said the bill was about to pop. The fact that we’re talking about it, and it’s in the forefront, that’s about to pop.”

Stoking the heat on Brown, immigration-rights organizations and anti-immigrant groups alike are contending that he is seeking special treatment for the Irish in order to win Boston Irish votes. In the Boston Globe, Roy Beck, of Numbers USA, a group committed to keeping immigrants out, charged that Enda Kenny and his government are “upset because they don’t have the special privileges that they once had” and want special treatment at the expense of other immigrant groups. They should not be given favor ahead of other groups such as “Latinos and Africans and Asians.” Brown also has to deal with Irish-American organizations saying his E3 bill falls far short.

Jack Meehan, a past national president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America, wrote to Irish Central that Brown’s bill does not go nearly far enough. “If a permanent resolution is not reached now,” he asserted, “it will be déjà vu all over again twenty years from now. It is my honest belief that to settle for something like this is to do a great disservice to those wishing to emigrate from Ireland, but more importantly a far greater disservice to our undocumented Irish nationals currently residing here who have been completely left out in the cold.”

“‘Tis a fine mess” into which Senator Scott Brown has plunged, and his chief problem is the very shift in American politics that has seen Enda Kenny reaching out to the minority party in the U.S. Senate. The intransigence of far-right Republican colleagues might present Brown a version of “ready to pop” he never anticipated to see during his battle for reelection.