By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The situation of undocumented Irish emigrants in the U.S. is now "a most difficult one and has deteriorated," with more than 4,000 people a year crossing the Atlantic to become "illegals," according to a newly published Catholic church report.
The major study strongly challenges widely held beliefs that enforced emigration has become a thing of the past and that, with the Celtic Tiger economy roaring along, those going abroad are leaving voluntarily and represent a new wave of largely confident, skilled and self-sufficient graduates.
"The report demolishes two dangerous myths — that emigration is over or, if not, that it is painless," Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam writes bluntly in a foreword to the report.
Entitled "Emigration and Services for Irish Emigrants. Towards a New Strategic Plan," the report was launched by President Mary McAleese for the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants and the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, which said that Irish people who have gone abroad and found life "very different and difficult" must be remembered and cared for.
The report is sharply critical of the lack of coherence in the government’s stand on emigration, raps a "faultline" in funding for organizations involved and says lack of information about emigrants is causing "serious problems."
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The report found that 39 percent of arrivals in the previous year in the U.S. use welfare services. It says that total emigration is continuing to run at more than 20,000 a year. "Suggestions by politicians that emigration has ended are incorrect and misleading," it says
It calls for information deficits to be urgently addressed, for emigration to be made an ongoing area of policy and a better response to the needs of the Irish community abroad.
"Entry opportunities to the United States have fallen from 16,000 a year at their peak to about 500 a year at present," according to the report. "It is virtually impossible for undocumented Irish people in the U.S. to regularize their situation."
Examining the changing nature of emigration the report concludes:
€ poor, less skilled and less well-qualified people continue to constitute the bulk of Irish emigrants in the last 10 years;
€ new wave emigration impacted most on Western and border counties, where low skills and lower education qualifications were most prevalent, and on working-class urban areas — and was not a radical departure from previous patterns of exodus;
€ analysis of emigrant destinations suggest that while some immigrants were absorbed in professional elites, most clustered at the low end of the wage scale, into jobs that offered little or no mobility opportunities or security and were part of the semi-contractual informalized economies.
€ new wave emigrants were more educated than predecessors but it only reflected a general improvement in education standards;
€ there was no evidence to suggest that graduate emigration was any more voluntary than for less educationally well-qualified groups.
The report said information on U.S. immigrants indicated they were older than those going to Britain, more urban, more middle class, many coming from jobs, but with significant numbers leaving Ireland due to unfavorable economic circumstances.
"Irish emigrants [to America] include adventurers and those whose attitude to Irish society was one of ambivalence or ennui," the reports says. "Many gravitated toward employment in construction, bars, restaurants and child care.
"While more advantaged than migrants to Britain, they nevertheless faced problems of adjustment, status, underemployment, uncertainty, cultural disorientation and vulnerability to exploitation.
"There is continued evidence of the exploitation of young Irish labor, often by Irish contractors, and of high casualty rates on construction sites
"Recent arrivals in the U.S. include mobile and prosperous emigrants. More detailed investigation shows how significant numbers enter uncertain, irregular, low-paid employment in a narrow range of occupations where they are vulnerable to exploitation.
"There may be some evidence of an older Irish community which has failed to prosper."
U.S. immigration significant
The report says that 14,700 of the 29,000 who emigrated in 1997 left for more distant destinations than Britain, and the U.S. was by far the most significant, taking 6,800 people.
"The situation of undocumented Irish emigrants in the U.S. is now a most difficult one and has deteriorated," the report says. "Legislation passed in 1996 makes it effectively impossible for them to regularize their situation. Their only prospects are to leave the country for 10 years and apply for highly oversubscribed diversity visa programs or to marry a U.S. citizen or legally permanent resident. . . .
"Evidence shows that over 4,000 Irish people are entering and staying in the U.S. illegally each year.
"The number of diversity visas received by Irish people has fallen from a peak of 16,000 a year to as few as 500 a year, down 97 percent.
"As the number of Irish emigrating to the U.S. rises, and as the number of visas falls, the proportion of illegal entries and overstays increases rapidly.
"There are significant numbers of undocumented Irish in the U.S. While it has not reached the scale of the problem in the late 1980s, it is likely that this problem will become more acute each year."
The reports says that from the mid to late 1980s many young people went to America but the number of Irish illegals was never accurately determined.
"Figures ranged from 44,000 to 100,000, most agreeing on something in the 60,000 to 70,000 range, though figures as high as 135,000 and 250,000 have been quoted," it says
During the two-year period 1995-97, Irish census returns show that 12,000 Irish people immigrated to the U.S.
"During this period, 2,764 diversity visas were made available to citizens from the Republic. Those receiving other visas during the same period are thought to be much fewer than 1,000, suggesting that the numbers entering and staying in the U.S. during this two-year period illegally is at least 8,236, or more than 4,000 a year."
Centers overburdened, underfunded
The report is also strongly critical of the shortage of State funding for resource services for emigrants with static levels of aid having "quite negative" effects on voluntary organizations in America and presenting serious problems.
It says that new organizations are funded essentially at the expense of old ones and the scramble for financial aid can create an "unhealthy rivalry."
"In some cities, established voluntary organizations have lost large parts of their grant in order to make way for new, albeit equally worthy, organizations.
"Frontline services have been cut in order to spread limited resources. Desirable services, such as counseling, have been excluded from funding, in order to concentrate resources on established forms of work."
The report describes the funding of dedicated pre-departure advisory services as "astonishingly low."
The report says chaplaincy services have been established in the last two years in San Francisco, Atlanta, Orlando, St. Petersburg, San Diego, San Jose, Portland, Worcester and Seattle.
However, it is a complex ad hoc system with most of the chaplains receiving stipends that are at a level of between half and a third of their commercial equivalent value of their services.
It recommends a systematic involvement of lay people in the work, operation and appointments of the chaplaincy.
May 26-June 1, 1999