By Patrick Markey
and Harry Keaney
At first glance, the odds would seem to be against Lily Hayes settling in the United States. But Hayes has different ideas.
"I am here for the long haul," the 35-year-old undocumented Irish immigrant said, "and I am going to stick it out."
Hayes came to the U.S. because she had been working at the same office job in Ireland for 12 years. She felt her life was in a rut. She needed a change.
"I had two sisters here and I came to see what it was like," she said. "I never thought I would like to live here, but I said I would come out for a year and then I would go back."
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That was three years ago.
"I just settled in here so well," she said. "People generally are so welcoming."
Hayes, of course, is a lucky one. For many other illegal immigrants, the transition from visiting to settling isn’t always an easy one. From the moment they arrive, their lives usually revolve around a network of friends within the Irish immigrant community. Though these connections often help the new arrival find work and housing, there is a dark side to this benevolence.
The support system, while useful on an immediate level, often does little to help the immigrant integrate into American society. And while that may be of no matter to the pure adventure seeker, to those undocumented immigrants who harbor more long-term hopes, such a support system may actually become something a crutch that impedes their path toward their goal, namely, a green card, citizenship — and assimilation.
That assertion is supported by the results of a recent study of young Irish immigrants by psychotherapist Eibhlin Donlon-Farry, a clinical consultant to the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers.
Donlon-Farry, a County Longford native, recently obtained her doctorate in social work from Adelphi University on Long Island. Her dissertation examined the connection between biculturalism and life satisfaction among recent legal and illegal Irish immigrants.
According to Donlon-Farry, the undocumented, particularly the single undocumented, who because of their illegal status cannot by definition be considered truly bicultural but, rather, monocultural Irish, were the least satisfied with their lives in the U.S.
For many undocumented immigrants, their uncertain legal status hinders their efforts to settle, primarily because of the isolation, even alienation, from society in general that it engenders. While some thrive in that uncertainty, for others it proves a daunting challenge to assimilation.
Looking for security in an unsettling environment, many undocumented immigrants find themselves suddenly grappling with problems that might otherwise be dissipated were they surrounded by supportive family. Donlon-Farry’s study found those issues are only exacerbated by undocumented immigrants’ illegal status, concerns over deportation, and limited access to the labor market.
For the undocumented, and to a lesser extent many legal immigrants, these problems most likely revolve around relationships and finances, and they complicate the already thorny question of whether to stay in the United States or return home. Indeed, many of the problems immigrants face are related to how they go about that often painful decision-making process.
Should they attempt the task of assimilating into American culture, difficult though the term is to describe, or should they huddle within the relative safety of Irish communities upon which the new undocumented immigrants rely? Or, alternatively, can they successfully manage a difficult identity balancing act, a middle ground, as it were, and straddle the two cultures, in effect becoming bicultural?
For illegal immigrants in the U.S., life can be fraught with difficulties. Although some of the larger cities, especially New York, tend to be more hospitable places for the new arrival, even here the institutional cards of a hostile federal government are stacked against an undocumented immigrant. As a result, the undocumented often live a shadowy existence in which they feel helpless to fight exploitation by employers or landlords, in which they are reluctant to report a crime or even seek medical help.
Over time, a feeling of isolation, even while living in a sympathetic immigrant community, can only grow. Emotional wounds appear and fester, fed by uncertainty and indecision. Personal relationships often become, in the words of Donlon-Farry, "unmeaningful."
The problems, especially within relationships, are often exacerbated by the absence of a network of close family and friends. "When a crisis occurs, people can look around and find they have no support system," said Patricia O’Callaghan, coordinator of Project Irish Outreach of the Archdiocese of New York.
Problems with relationships were also cited by Fr. Tom Flynn and Sr. Edna McNicholas, chaplains with Project Irish Outreach at the Aisling Irish Community Center, as the source of problems encountered by immigrants who visit the center, where during the period Jan. 1 to Sept. 17 last year, 91 percent of callers were undocumented.
"When you’re away from home, you’re emotionally more vulnerable and the tendency can be to fall into those relationships for that emotional security," Flynn said.
"I think it’s our experience where young people, some as young as 17, begin living with each other far too soon. They’re not mature enough for that level of intimacy. They may not know one another sufficiently well."
Indeed, rather than these relationships solving problems, they often magnify them. And it’s the indecision over whether to stay in the U.S. or return to Ireland that’s often at the root of these relationship difficulties.
In fact, Donlon-Farry, in her work as a psychotherapist, has found that it’s in relationships that discontent often manifests itself. And, she added, "it’s often a crisis that brings people in the door."
"One of the problems that caught my eye in the past two years was with married couples, and the conflict and tension between partners over future goals and where to settle," she said. "Women often want to return to Ireland and the men are still connected to their perceived freedoms here and the economic opportunities."
Project Irish Outreach’s O’Callaghan said she thinks young people, especially women, miss the extended family while in the U.S., as well as the Irish value system, unless they replace them with a new family here. And, she pointed out, "the family unit here is so spread out and individualism so strong that it can be daunting and isolating for newcomers."
However, seeking help in times of difficulty is often something the Irish, particularly the undocumented, are reluctant to do.
"Marital tensions often drive people into seeking help, and for the Irish to seek help there must be a crisis," Donlon-Farry said.
"It could be a pregnancy, a miscarriage. It could also be not having enough time as a family, husbands often working six days and long hours through the weekends. With a husband spending time away from her family, the wife will reach the point of desperation, she gets depressed and the husband then realizes there is a problem."
According to Donlon-Farry, alcohol abuse and depression are often the result.
"What I do see is a lot of heavy drinking, weekend drinking that’s prolonged from Thursday to Sunday, and it leaves people very depleted, depressed, frustrated and lonely," she said.
Kieran O’Sullivan of the Irish Immigration Center in Boston said he is happy when such people call the center.
"What I worry about is when I am out and about, in a club or something, and see big crowds drinking," he said. "We have a substance-abuse problem and I think a lot of it is caused by loneliness. People look for solutions in the wrong places."
Even far more positive attributes among undocumented immigrants, such as working hard and saving money, can have their downside. Donlon-Farry said, for example, that many immigrants have the long-term goal of socking away enough money to return to Ireland and set themselves up in business. But this can come at a cost.
"They’re not living in the present," she said of the immigrants. "They’re not enjoying their life here together. They’re not rooted, some will not even buy furniture or hang pictures on the wall. They are fearful of becoming too settled."
For Lily Hayes, however, it’s a relationship that holds the key to the possibility of a legal future, and a more settled life in the United States. Next year, she and her boyfriend, an Irish citizen who has a green card, hope to marry. Then, after he eventually becomes a U.S. citizen, she hopes to obtain a green card through what’s known as the marriage-based petition process.
Like many illegal immigrants, however, Hayes may be in for a shock when she comes to legalizing her status. Although illegal immigrants may obtain a tax identification number and pay taxes, Hayes is not doing so, and it concerns her.
"I worry that I am stealing, that I am not giving anything back," she said.
But a more tangible problem may arise when she applies for her green card. According to O’Sullivan of the Irish Immigration Center in Boston, Hayes will have to file tax returns.
O’Sullivan added that it’s important that Hayes doesn’t leave the U.S. because, if she does, a 10-year ban on reentry will apply. As a result, illegal Irish immigrants uncertain about their future hedge their bets and decide to remain in the U.S., inhabiting a paralyzing underworld where future problems often quietly accumulate.
Although illegal immigrants seem to have the most difficulty in settling and assimilating into their new environment, they are not alone. It’s a problem that afflicts legal immigrants too, even those who have become citizens. And, in an ironic twist, modern technology often hinders rather than helps.
For example, there are now more airline flights between Ireland and the U.S. than ever before. Indeed, some immigrants travel so frequently that the word "immigration," with all its connotations of permanence, no longer applies.
Modern telecommunications, specifically low-cost international telephone rates and the internet, have made news from Ireland the push of a button away.
A blessing, many would say, but to some it’s a curse in disguise. That, according to Donlon-Farry, is because the easy accessibility between the two countries leaves many immigrants torn between two cultures, unable to settle in either.
"This is a different immigrant generation," she said. "Because of the choices, it makes settling more difficult. The question is, Are these people happy? The answer often is, not really."
But Donlon-Farry’s findings are turning conventional wisdom on its head. "What I was doing was questioning the assumption that biculturalism is the ideal state," she said of her dissertation. "Much of the literature will say that it is."
Donlon-Farry described a biculturalist as someone who has the competence to function and live in two cultures simultaneously, something that is manifested by frequent travel to "home."
Becoming part of the host culture "is a continuum that involves the entire experience from being monocultural Irish to becoming more assimilated," she said.
But Donlon-Farry found Irish immigrants who were assimilating more fully into American life, immigrants who tended to become more monocultural Americans, tended to be more satisfied with their lives in the United States compared with those who were not assimilating so completely.
That level of assimilation compares with what Donlon-Farry described as Irish monoculturalists within the U.S. (those, like most undocumented immigrants, who stayed within Irish communities) and the biculturalists (those who straddle the two cultures, but are less likely to rooted in either).
For example, Donlon-Farry said that dual citizenship may be enjoyed by the Irish, allowing them the benefits of being citizens of both Ireland and the U.S. But, she pointed out, these promote a biculturalism in which they may not be rooted in either culture, Irish or American. "And if you’re not rooted, you’re probably not very happy," she said.
Donlon-Farry’s observation matches that of Patrick Duffy, a financial planner in New York, who works mainly with Irish clients.
"I wouldn’t use the word unhappiness," Duffy said, "but it’s an ambivalence that hinders people from taking financial planning steps, from actually doing something."
As an example, Duffy said he recently asked an Irish client if he had joined his company’s pension plan. The young man hadn’t; he said he "might be going home next year."
Added Donlon-Farry: "When you’re trying to juggle the demands of two cultures on a constant basis, you can end up stressed and insecure about who you are and why you’re in this country. This lack of commitment to Americanization, perhaps, leaves immigrants at risk for alienation and discontent."
"It’s a quality-of-life issue," Duffy said. "It’s about peace of mind."
Two-thirds of Donlon-Farry’s dissertation sample group of 171 immigrants, aged from 18-60, were young immigrants who traveled once or twice a year to Ireland. Only a fifth of the sample group had really committed themselves to settling in the U.S., she said. The other four-fifths had migrated here without long-term plans or as adventure seekers.
Patricia O’Callaghan agreed there is a danger in taking a halfhearted interest in both countries or of getting stuck in a "time warp" because of isolation. But, she added, she has always been struck by how warmly the Irish are received by Americans. "We don’t have to feel self-conscious or inhibited or an outsider, but I think we always feel the Irish nostalgia that’s hard to shake off," she said.
For some, the sense of being settled is a particularly elusive, even painful, one. Sean O’Sullivan, a mortgage broker with Arlington Financial in Yonkers, said that some people who returned to Ireland with the hope of taking advantage of the booming Celtic Tiger economy were now coming back to the U.S. again.
He said some of these people sold houses bought in the early 1990s and used the profits to settle in Ireland. Now they are back in the U.S. trying to reestablish themselves.
O’Callaghan, however, said that a large percentage of Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1980s have become citizens.
"Once they are U.S. citizens, they have the freedom and flexibility to have a foot in both worlds," she said. "They are comfortable with this. For many, America is viewed like a friendly home away from home."
(Lily Hayes is an assumed name for an illegal immigrant who did not wish her identity to be revealed.)