By Harry Keaney and Patrick Markey
Whatever happened to the once passionate debate on Irish immigration?
These days, the subject hardly rates a mention in most Irish-American circles. Instead, the focus is on the good times, the Celtic Tiger economy, its record low unemployment, even fears in Ireland of a shortage of qualified workers. Indeed, today more people are entering Ireland — many of them returned emigrants — than are leaving.
It’s all a far cry from the late 1980s and early ’90s, an era when economic depression and rocketing unemployment fueled emigration from Ireland. Back then, immigration reformers fought hard for Irish access to the United States. In their heyday, those reformers, many of them immigrants themselves, broke fresh ground campaigning for new visas, such as the Donnelly, Morrison and Schumer programs, by successfully lobbying bigwigs in the political corridors of New York and Washington.
But behind today’s relatively low immigration figures lies another story, one overshadowed by the success of the Irish economy. Ironically, that success is, in part, driving current Irish emigration. Many of those now leaving the island are young, often without the education or skills the Celtic Tiger demands.
"I think that, in so far as one could say there is disillusionment, it would have to refer to the divide between the haves and the have-nots," said Father Tom Flynn of the Aisling Irish Center, which helps Irish immigrants in Yonkers, N.Y.
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"A significant number of immigrants do not even have Leaving Cert. [the equivalent of a high school diploma]. A minority, of course, do have third-level qualifications but not to the same degree they did in the 1980s and early 1990s."
In the euphoria of economic boom, those who are now coming to the U.S. are, largely, a forgotten lot. Not only are many of them less well-prepared than their recent predecessors, they’re also entering a more hostile immigrant environment, particularly when it comes to work.
"Unless you have skills, you will not get a well-paid job," said Paula O’Sullivan of the Dublin-based Emigrant Advice, an information and counseling service, referring to the opportunities available in Ireland’s new economy.
"Without skills, work is generally confined to the hospitality-service industry. Regarding the construction industry, skilled laborers are in demand more than unskilled.
"The unskilled who contact us in relation to the U.S. tend to be bored, unwilling to learn a skill and they want to emigrate for the adventure of it, influenced by the allegedly great experiences of friends living abroad."
During a recent visit to New York, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern acknowledged today’s undocumented immigration originated from a pool of youth unable to find a place in Ireland’s new rapidly growing economy.
Less politically aware
That there is now no widespread, concerted effort to continue the fight to regularize the status of today’s undocumented Irish, such as that spearheaded by Irish Immigration Reform Movement a decade ago, makes the lack of attention to current immigration all the more disturbing. The immigrants themselves, younger and less politically aware than their predecessors, have not coalesced into an effective lobbying group. Meanwhile, advocates for changes in the law say a daunting anti-immigration climate has hamstrung efforts to smooth the way for the new arrivals.
According to the Republic of Ireland’s Central Statistics Office figures for April 1997 to April 1998, 4,300 people from the Republic immigrated to the U.S., 2,700 of whom were male, 1,600 female.
And according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 5,315 people emigrated legally from Ireland in 1995 and 1,731 in 1996.
Immigration figures vary enormously; undocumented immigrants in the U.S. do not, of course, figure in the official portrait of American immigration.
A report on overall emigration from Ireland issued earlier this year by the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants, a Catholic church body, stated: "While fewer Irish people emigrate now than in the 1980s, the annual rate of 20,000 from the Republic and 10,000 from Northern Ireland remains high."
If legal Irish immigration to the U.S. has dropped off, emigration remains significant in other ways. Anecdotal evidence indicates more immigrants are coming from Northern Ireland, and many of them are arriving here on temporary visas, staying and working without proper documentation.
It is a phenomenon immigration advocates and services have watched develop during the last few years.
An information officer with Emigrant Advice, O’Sullivan is among those closest to the issue of current Irish emigration. Before moving back to Ireland in December 1996, she worked for seven years in New York with Irish Outreach, an agency of the Archdiocese of New York.
"Out of a total number of 2,724 queries, 38.22 percent, the largest percentage, concerned emigration to the U.S.," O’Sullivan said. "Slightly more males than females contact us, most are skilled workers with trade papers or professionals with college degrees in their 20s and 30s looking to immigrate legally to the U.S. More are students who have obtained J-1 visas for the summer."
However, O’Sullivan added Emigrant Advice also receives queries from unskilled workers in their late teens and early 20s about immigrating to the U.S. For these, she said, there "are only limited options in some circumstances."
"In most instances, these people decide not to go when they hear of the situation for the undocumented there, the restrictive laws regarding deportation for overstays and the penalties that apply to employers who might hire them," she said.
But, she added: "Inevitably, some of them do go, many encouraged by friends already living there who promise to help them find work and accommodation. Many decide to go on vacation, planning to stay on if offered work."
Last year, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service reported that nearly 120,000 Irish citizens legally immigrated to the U.S. between 1981 and 1996, with about 25 percent settling in the New York area. The INS estimated there were an additional 30,000 undocumented or illegal Irish immigrants as of October 1996.
Archbishop Michael Neary, chairman of the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants, said his commission’s report "demolishes two dangerous myths — that emigration is over or, if not, that it is painless."
"The fact that neither is true points to the continuing need for services, for the adequate funding of them and for the establishment of rights for all migrants and indeed for policies to prevent unwanted emigration," Neary said.
According to the Irish Episcopal Commission report, Irish immigration to the U.S. has fallen only slightly, from 7,900 a year in 1988 to 6,800 a year in 1998, down only 13.9 percent.
There has been a shift of immigration destinations away from Britain to continental Europe, the United States and the rest of the world, according to the report, a situation confirmed by those who work on the ground in North America.
"They’re coming, some as young as 17. We find two main areas they’re coming from, the North of Ireland and Dublin. I think a lot of them have some contacts and hear things are good and they come for the experience," said Fr. Flynn of the Aisling Irish Center.
"I think it has to be said they do not come with the intention that it’s for life. What happens to them when they come here means that that changes," he said.
Sr. Edna McNicholas, who also works in the Aisling Irish Center, said some immigrants are in jobs in Ireland that offer them little opportunity.
The number of Irish undocumented in the U.S. has never been accurately determined, a point echoed by O’Sullivan, who says there are no official figures for illegal immigration.
The IECE report states: "For the two-year period 1995-97, Irish census returns show that 12,000 Irish people immigrated to the U.S. from the Republic. 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 number much fewer than 1,000, suggesting that the numbers entering and staying in the U.S. illegally during this two-year period is at least 8,236, or over 4,100 a year."
"They are coming"
The IECE report states that Irish emigrant services in the U.S. estimate that 39 percent of their total workload relates to recent arrivals. Of the 740 people who approached the Aisling Center in a nine-month period last year, 91 percent were undocumented.
"In the last two years, a greater number of immigrants are undocumented than documented," Eamonn Dornan of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in New York City said. "There is a steady flow of undocumented coming. They are certainly not coming in the waves they were in the 1980s and early 1990s, but they are coming — and they are building."
In Philadelphia, another area with a high Irish immigrant population, Tom Conaghan, of the city’s Immigration Resource Center, said that at a recent legal advice event, 55 people showed up, the majority of whom "would have been illegal." Most of those were under 24 years old, Conaghan said.
According to Kieran O’Sullivan of the Irish Immigration Center in Boston, there may be more than 5,000 undocumented Irish immigrants living in the greater Boston area.
"Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult for Irish immigrants to obtain green cards," he said. "The island of Ireland received only between 600 to 700 green cards from last year’s diversity visa lottery. In the family-based preference system, it takes more than 10 years for a naturalized U.S. citizen to claim in a brother or sister."
In Philadelphia, Conaghan, also noted the difficulty in estimating the area’s number of undocumented Irish immigrants. "Some folks say around 5,000 in the greater Philadelphia area and possibly another 2,000 in the states of Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware. That’s a rough estimate."
Conaghan said the ages of immigrants, legal and otherwise, range from the newly arrived 18-25-year-olds as well as those who came over in the 1980s and early 1990s, who are about 27 to 35 years old.
"We have come across quite a number who were very unlucky, they applied and never got a visa," Conaghan said. "I met someone who is here for 13 years and hasn’t a visa. And many of the younger immigrants are unskilled."
He added that there was "no possibility that some of them could have skills, because they hadn’t spent the time in school." He said these were, generally, in the 17-24 age group.
Some Northern Irish immigrants do have training in the trades, many have not completed their courses and some are recent graduates from the University of Ulster, Queens University in Belfast and southern institutions seeking employment with American companies.
The ratio of skilled to unskilled would probably be 60-to-40 to 70-to-30, Conaghan said. He said many of the young girls work "in big houses" around Philadelphia in child care, elderly care and house cleaning. Others are waitresses and bartenders.
"Our immigrants are mostly from areas where unemployment is high," Conaghan added. "In the case of Northern Ireland, we have people who left because they didn’t feel safe. Some have said they were beaten up, others said they were constantly harassed by the RUC."
The Philadelphia region has, historically, been a destination for Northern immigrants. "These folks, in many cases, end up in quiet suburbs and small towns outside Philadelphia. They say it’s peaceful and they feel safe," Conaghan said.
Still, some well-educated immigrants find themselves working in blue-collar positions. Conaghan said it is not unusual to find someone "with a good college education" working in a restaurant.
But in all three major Northeast Irish enclaves, immigration workers said a high percentage of those now arriving are undocumented youngsters without long-term plans to stay in the United States, and with an eye on the financial opportunities available in the underground work market.
Even for the undocumented, wages in America are often twice or three times those offered in Ireland for similar work.
"I think there is an awful lot of emphasis on the Celtic Tiger," Sr. Edna said. "I have a nephew who is a farmer in Ireland and the Celtic Tiger is not of any benefit to him. Cattle prices are down, and fodder prices are so high the farmers would be better off they did not have cattle. The Celtic Tiger helps people who are pretty well off, and the gap gets wider."
O’Sullivan, too, said many unskilled immigrants living in rural areas in Ireland have not had a glimpse at the Celtic Tiger. He himself, he said, comes from a thriving tourist town, Kenmare, Co. Cork, but many young people he knows there who do not have a college education or ties to the tourist industry found work at a nearby factory making just $150 a week.
"A few have been unable to enjoy the independence of a car because of the exorbitant insurance rates," he said. "Some have immigrated to the U.S. and are making between $500 and $800 a week in restaurants and construction. Although undocumented and unable to get access to a driver’s license, these immigrants prefer to be living here. Many of them tell me that because of their bigger salary there are many more things to do and enjoy here."