Category: Archive

Older now, but still living on the edge in Boston

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Of course, they also share one other trait: they are undocumented.
And that means that they’re a heartbeat away from being torn from their home, family, workplace and community, placed in shackles and hustled onto a plane back to Ireland.
For the “forgotten Irish” remain in a limbo of uncertainty, waiting anxiously for comprehensive immigration reform while they go about their far-from-normal lives.
And for five of their number – two from Kerry, two from Donegal, and one from Belfast – who gathered round a suburban kitchen outside of Boston recently, the strain of a life in the shadows is evident.
“There’s a bad vibe out there about illegals and while we’re not illegal (the Irish are classified as undocumented or out of status because their initial entry to the U.S. was legal) there’s always the fear that suddenly you will be reported to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and you will end up being put out of the country,” said Gemma (34).
“It could be as simple as falling out with a neighbor or being stopped at a traffic accident.”
The majority of the undocumented Irish – whose numbers variously are estimated at between 30,000 and 50,000 – entered the U.S. on 90-day visas and then overstayed.
If they leave the U.S. now to go back to Ireland, they will not be allowed back.
During the Celtic Tiger boom, substantial numbers decided to return to Ireland but today, with the Irish economy in turmoil, most wish to stay on – until, that is, they face a grave family crisis.
“No one can predict what another person will do when the call comes to say that your father has died or that your mother has been taken into hospital,” says Donegal-born Jim.
“That is our worst nightmare because no-one wants their last goodbye to be over a phone. But you do know that if you decide to leave, you are saying goodbye to your friends and family and everything you have built up in America because you’re not coming back.”
Kieran O’Sullivan, a counselor with the Irish Pastoral Center in Quincy, says the undocumented live under constant pressure. “I am dealing with one woman who is being harassed by her employer but is afraid to go to the police in case she ends up being arrested,” he says.
“I know of another woman who was followed in Quincy but likewise doesn’t want to go to the police. Last week, I met a young mother in South Boston whose father won’t let her take her two-year-old child home to Ireland so she is caught in a dreadful predicament. And I also meet the depressed and the vulnerable who slide into addiction and alcoholism because of their status. It’s very tragic. All I can do is listen.”
Last year, a young undocumented man died rather than present himself to hospital because he was afraid he would be reported to the authorities, while in recent months, at least two undocumented men have taken their own lives.
Since the undocumented can’t draw welfare payments of any kind, they are all in employment.
“We consider that we are contributing to this country,” says Janine (33), a nanny who has been in the U.S. since 1997.
“But we know that the whole world changed after 9/11, that so-called illegals are all too often equated with terrorists and that there’s a belief that in tough economic times, the undocumented are pushing American citizens onto the unemployment lines.”
Previous generations of immigrants, even those who entered the U.S. without papers, won green cards and citizenship through the Donnelly and Morrison visa programs but for those who came into the U.S. from the mid nineties on, there has been no such escape valve.
“We were in our twenties, fleeing an Ireland without jobs, and probably didn’t understand the consequences of what we were doing when we decided to overstay our I-90 Visa,” says Jim (37). “But now we’re in our thirties with a lot to lose.”
If he comes to the attention of ICE, Jim can expect to be sent back to Ireland, leaving behind his wife – who holds a green card – and daughter.
Fr. John McCarthy of the Irish Pastoral Center, which provides counsel and support for the undocumented, says public representatives in Ireland could do more to resolve “the most crucial issue facing Irish America.”
“The new J-1 Visas, aimed at graduates, will not help those already here or stem the flow of new immigrants because the majority of them don’t have degrees,” he said.
“The undocumented are Irish citizens and the Irish government should be doing more but the reality is that the only people representing the undocumented are Irish Americans.
There has been a history of immigration from Ireland to the U.S. for 150 years and that has created a special bond which should make a resolution of this issue possible.
“I have spoken to Irish American politicians in D.C. who are in favor of a solution but we need to throw more weight behind their efforts and the Irish government needs to push the U.S. government in the right direction.”
Kieran O’Sullivan believes the Irish community didn’t work hard enough during the McCain/Kennedy immigration reform initiative.
“I was in offices in D.C. where staffers were striking off the number of calls for and against,” he said, “and more calls were coming in against than for.
If President Obama comes forward with immigration reform proposals, we going to have to put our shoulder to the wheel to make the calls. We hear the Irish politicians say they’re doing their best, but most of the undocumented feel they are forgotten about.”
As they wait for more action from politicians from across Ireland – the forgotten Irish, of course, hail from all 32 counties – and for Washington’s reform proposals, the undocumented are determined to fight their corner.
The latest in a series of town hall meetings will take place in Bad Abbots in Quincy at 8 p.m. on October 6.
“We’re a living bridge with Ireland,” says Gemma. “And resolving our status will mean we can make as big a contribution to Ireland in the years ahead as we will make to the United States.”

Names of the undocumented have been changed in this article. The Irish Pastoral Center is at 617 479-7404; website: www.ipcboston.org; email: ipcboston@yahoo.com. Kieran O’Sullivan can be contacted at cleadyhse@comcast.net.

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