CITY HALL — Calling Chicago "the most western county of Ireland," Mayor Rahm Emanuel welcomed Irish President Michael Higgins to the city on Friday.
Higgins made the United States and Chicago his second foreign visit as leader of the nation. He and Emanuel addressed economic, cultural and historical topics as well as comprehensive immigration reform to aid aspiring Irish Americans.
"It is a very great pleasure to be here, and I'm absolutely delighted to have such a warm, fruitful and practical conversation with Mayor Emanuel," Higgins said.
Emanuel, who spoke of the "deep ties between Ireland and the City of Chicago," was joined in welcoming Higgins at City Hall by Aldermen Mary O'Connor (41st) and Patrick O'Connor (40th).
"We talked about the important role that culture plays now into the vibrancy of an economy, but also the way it can touch the human spirit," Emanuel said. He saluted the Irish community in the city.
Higgins was previously a cultural minister in Ireland and spoke of "how the cultural infrastructure of a city can contribute to its sustainability."
He also estimated there are 50,000 Irish in the United States as "undocumented" aliens, 5,000 in Chicago, "the great melting-pot city that it is." He said U.S. immigration reform remains an issue for his people, as for other undocumented aliens.
Higgins said he visited the city on a Greyhound bus in the '60s while studying at Indiana University.
Higgins moves on to Indiana over the weekend, where as a distinguished alumnus he'll give the commencement address. He returns to the city next week to continue meetings with Irish-American cultural and business organizations, as well as Gov. Pat Quinn.
"The main focus is on the Irish community and strengthening ties with business leaders," said Sarah Martin, spokeswoman for the president.
Higgins is scheduled to visit the Art Institute on Tuesday, toward the end of his five-day visit, and Emanuel invited him back for St. Patrick's Day next year when he could also help open an exhibit of Irish art scheduled for the museum.