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O'Dowd: Immigration debate not about borders

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(CNN) -- Conversations concerning modern-day immigration, legal or otherwise, tend to focus on the steady stream of immigrants from Latin America.

But restricting the discussion of immigration in the United States to one group of people from one area of the world, oversimplifies what is a much broader topic, Niall O'Dowd, chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, told CNN. "This isn't just a Hispanic problem, or an Asian problem, or any kind of problem," he said of immigration. "This isn't something to fear, but something to embrace. This is a country of immigration."

As the chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration, an organization with 28 chapters across the country, O'Dowd is looking for immigration reform to help thousands of undocumented Irish in the United States. Specifically, he said, the group wants legislation to provide work visas and a process for undocumented workers to become legal.

"What we want is a work-based system whereby people who are providing services, who are in a position to work hard, who are in a position to give back to this economy, can do so in a legal fashion," he said.

According to O'Dowd, there are about 50,000 undocumented Irish in the United States, primarily on the East Coast, most of whom came with tourist visas and overstayed in order to work.

O'Dowd's motives are largely personal. In 1979, as a 25-year-old, he left Ireland to come to the United States, and was undocumented for a time. "Once you've walked in the shoes of being undocumented, you never forget it," he said. "I think if native-born Americans knew how great their country looked, or how tremendous the opportunity looks to people who come here, they'd have a very different view of immigration," he said.

"I feel I have had my chance at the American dream, and it ... is very important to me to allow other Irish people to experience the greatest country in the world and live their version of the dream."

In addition to leading the Irish Lobby for Immigration, O'Dowd also founded Irish America Magazine and Irish Voice newspaper in New York.


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Niall O'Dowd is trying to help undocumented Irish immigrants.

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