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Prime Minister Bertie Ahern on Irish Immigration

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," March 16, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The president Thursday met with Ireland's prime minister on Capitol Hill. Bertie Ahern urged the Senate to pass legislation that would help tens of thousands of Irish people who are in this country illegally. Prime Minister Ahern joins us now.

Mr. Prime Minister, you had lunch with President Bush Thursday. He is in favor of some sort of guest worker program. Did you urge him to push this guest worker program so it will benefit Irish?

BERTIE AHERN, PRIME MINISTER OF IRELAND: Well, we certainly would like to see the whole issue resolved. I mean, what we have said is that the Kennedy-McCain bill brings a comprehensive resolution to the whole issue. We do not see the Irish issue being solved in isolation.

And I was with the president Thursday with Speaker Hastert's lunch for St. Patrick's Day. Friday I'll be having a more formal and more lengthy meeting. But we're anxious to see some resolution of the issues. We know how complex they are. We know that there are 12 million plus people that are undocumented in the United States, and we know how difficult it is for our friends on Capitol Hill to find resolution of all these issues. But they're important, as you would expect me to look from an Irish perspective, we have tens of thousands of Irish people here who are undocumented, many of them are here 20 or 30 years, many of them are far more recent.

And now because of the obvious tightening of security, they find it very difficult. They can't go home. They want to pay their part here. They've settled here. And like generations of Irish people back over the last 150 years, they want to continue to be in the United States.

GIBSON: Mr. Ahern, when we think of illegal immigration, we think of Mexicans and OTMs, other than Mexicans. Frankly, who knew OTMs included Irish? How many?

AHERN: We reckon we don't have an exact figure for the simple reason, John, that people put their head down and they try to keep out of the way and not to create difficulties. And that's what the Irish have tended to do down through the generations.

We reckon it's probably somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000. Some would argue that it's higher than that. Our government estimate is somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000. Most of these people, practically all of these people are working. They consider themselves Irish-American now. Their families are here; they want to live here. They want to follow the same tradition that Irish people have had for generations: to come and work here and live here.

And it wasn't so difficult until recent years. We totally understand all the security difficulties that have happened after 9/11. But now they can't go home; they can't go home for family occasions, particularly funerals. It causes a lot of anguish for them. And as part of the debate that's going on now, particularly the McCain-Kennedy bill, which a lot of our people have been very supportive of, we have been supporting the efforts to find a resolution.

GIBSON: Mr. Prime Minister, I can't let you go without asking, what's the deal? I have my green tie on and you've changed out of your green tie into a red tie. What's the deal?

AHERN: Well, tonight, in an hour's time, I go to the Ireland Fund Dinner, so I'll be back in my green. And Friday's St. Patrick's Day. I'll make sure I'll have the shamrock on and the green tie.

GIBSON: All right, we'll be watching closely. Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, thanks for joining us.

AHERN: Thank you very much and Happy St. Patrick's Day.

GIBSON: Same to you.

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