Category: Archive

Echo Focus: From flow to trickle

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

They will fly back to Ireland with bags full of shopping, happy memories of the “hollier” in Florida, or the outlines of a megabucks business deal with the t-shirted titans in Silicon Valley.
The Irish are coming to America, hundreds of them every day. But very few of them are staying put. This is something new.
When Ireland was in the business of exporting desperate people, America offered a mostly open door. The Irish are no longer desperate. But they are restless, tend to think globally and still see in America a place where they can expand their horizons and individual economic prospects.
And not just a personal sense, but, either by accident or design, on behalf of Ireland Inc.
But growing ambition and expansionism in Ireland is coming up against reluctance in the United States.
There was a time when Ireland seemed to fit snugly into the American portal. Drag Ireland Westwards across the ocean, it seemed, and it would have virtually latched onto the U.S. East Coast.
In migratory terms, however, the two are lately more akin to tectonic plates moving in different directions.
Ireland is opening wider to the world while America, if the current thinking in Washington is to ultimately predominate, appears as if it is retreating into a shell.
This raises the specter of contradiction: Free trade and unrestricted job outsourcing collides with people protectionism at the frontier, the global market rubs uncomfortably against the hermetically sealed border.
In the midst of all this, the Irish can cross the Atlantic with an ease unmatched by previous generations. There are more flights and they are far cheaper in relative terms than they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
But the frequent Atlantic flyers can’t linger; they can get right up close to America, but they cannot lay claim to a share of it.
There always has been a positive and not so positive side to the centuries-old story of Irish people putting their unique stamp on America.
The negative was to be found in the trauma associated with forced emigration. The better aspect was the birth, growth and maturing of Irish America.
Even if Irish immigration to the U.S. now goes the way of the dinosaurs, the Irish twist to American life, in all its bountiful aspects, will remain evident. After all – and leaving aside the undocumented for a moment – there are tens of thousands of Irish people currently living in the U.S., both as permanent residents and naturalized citizens.
And there are tens of millions of their Irish-American cousins.
Irish America will continue to grow in absolute numbers though, in the course of the next few decades, would appear set to decline in proportion to the total population of the U.S.
This is due to the fact that the great majority of immigrants entering the U.S. legally each year does not come from Europe, never mind Ireland.
At most, the legal Irish tally is now measured in the hundreds annually, this by means of various student and specialized work related visas. Marriage between Irish and U.S. citizens adds a few more pairs of Irish feet on U.S. soil, but not enough to be readily noticed.
The Irish are now virtually shut out of the annual rush for H1-B and “Schumer” diversity visas and competition for other visa categories is never less than brisk.
The statistics tell the tale.
Between 1996 and 2005, 4,484 Irish were granted immigrant visas. In 2005, the sum total for successful Irish applicants in all immigrant visa categories was just 403 though this was up a little on the previous year’s total of 339.
Irish totals for the Schumer visas have been similarly on the wane. The total number of winners of 2007 diversity visas from the Republic of Ireland stands at just 160. The separate tally for Northern Ireland is almost off the radar at a lowly 42.
By contrast, the total of non-immigrant visas given to Irish applicants in 2005 was 16,763. Most of these, however, will not be in the country for more than a summer in the case of J1 student visa holders, or a few years if the visa is a non-immigrant work authorization such as an H1-B.
This is the come and go, “look but don’t touch” crowd.
The drying up of the flow of long term immigrants is not just noticeable in the raw numbers, which are compiled and released by the Department of Homeland Security.
It was, for example, possible for one long term observer of the Irish community in Boston to undertake an eye scan census on the recent Sunday when over 80,000 fans packed Croke Park in Dublin for the All Ireland football final.
The observer, who preferred not to be named, went to a pub to watch the game in a part of town that has long been a neighborhood for new Irish arrivals.
“Before 9/11 there would have been a couple of hundred in the place on an All Ireland Sunday. This time I counted exactly 26 customers,” he said.
The precise legal status of the 26 cannot be determined though it’s likely that there were both legal and undocumented individuals in the group.
Either way, 200 to 26 is a pretty precipitous decline. There is every reason to believe that drops like this are taking place not just in Boston, but also in New York, Philadelphia and other cities.
Looking beyond the present situation, some experts on Irish immigration patterns believe the traditional cyclical aspect of trans-Atlantic migration will be maintained, though for different reasons than in the past.
Professor Kerby Miller of the University of Missouri sees the interlocked relationship between the U.S. and Irish economies as an especially relevant factor.
A U.S. economic downturn, he believes, would result in decisions that would sharply resonate in Ireland where hundreds of U.S. companies are located.
Resulting job losses would inevitably mean Irish people looking West again to America, though the barriers to legal immigration they would face would be considerable.
Miller is of the view that “arrangements” would be made in such circumstances, an allusion to visa deals that the U.S. already has with other countries such as Australia, Chile and Singapore.
What has changed with regard to the Irish economy, and the traditional forms of emigration it spawned over generations, has changed with astonishing speed.
The second half of the 19th century witnessed a flood of Irish immigrants, the second half of the 20th a flow, albeit with a significant number of undocumented mixed up with the legal arrivals.
Based on this pattern it might have been expected that the flow would not be reduced to a trickle until the second half of this, the 21st century.
Instead, however, the falloff to a trickle was becoming evident by the late 1990s and has been glaringly obvious in this first decade of the new century.
The reasons are both positive – Ireland’s economic boom – and negative – restrictive U.S. immigration law as it pertains to a country like Ireland where most emigrants have traditionally tended to be single individuals, not families.
The effects on the Irish community in the U.S. are proving to be profound regardless of the whys and wherefores.
“The more Irish there are in America, the better America is.” So said Senator Charles Schumer in the fall of 2003.
Schumer didn’t mention numbers. But he would doubtless agree that there is both a healthy limit on Irish movement across the Atlantic, and reasons for such movement that are more mutually beneficial to both countries than has been the case in the past.
Nobody wants to see large scale forced emigration from Ireland again.
Equally, however, a forced absence of a vibrant Irish-born community would be, clearly, not to the New York senator’s liking — nor to that of Irish America, the Irish-born community’s historical benefactor and beneficiary.

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