By Patrick Markey
As legislators hammer out the fine details of a proposed new U.S. visa for Northern Irish residents, immigration advocates and Irish groups here say they have witnessed a subtle shift in immigration patterns that highlights the need for the new legislation.
More than ever you are as likely to hear the strains of Strabane accent as you are a Sligo one with young Northerners heading for Irish enclaves such as Woodside in Queens, Woodlawn in the Bronx, and Yonkers, and, more often than not, into the underground job market.
Certainly, the increasing exchange programs between Northern Ireland and the United States have bolstered the Northern presence here. But advocates and immigration experts say they are witnessing a shifting immigration pattern with the recent arrivals — Northerners, young, usually men in their teens or early 20s, semi-skilled, looking for fast cash, a touch of adventure, or just a way out from what they perceive as the drudgery of life at home.
While the much-touted Celtic Tiger economy has drawn thousands of Irish back to a revived Southern economy and new skilled positions, in Tyrone, Monaghan, areas of Belfast and the border counties, such as Newry, high unemployment and tight job opportunities still often stifle hopes of the younger population.
“These are people bypassed by the Celtic Tiger, which was mainly for the highly skilled, highly educated. Some of these people are the ones who are used to getting the dole, and benefits, and living in high unemployment areas,” said Father Colm Campbell, a Belfast native who runs the Irish Apostolate in Woodside Queens, where there is one of the largest concentrations of Irish immigrants in New York City.
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While anecdotal evidence is plentiful, tracking exact figures of the increased Northern presence can prove impractical because as many as 70 percent of the new arrivals are undocumented and often only a percentage turn to private agencies for assistance, observers say.
According to figures provided by the Emerald Isle Immigration Center’s latest survey, in the last six months, the center has reported a definite changing clientele. In September 1997, two-thirds of the center’s clientele were aged 22-29. Six months later, the report states, the largest sub-group is now aged 17 to 23.
Now 65 percent of new arrivals coming through the center’s doors are from the North, predominately from Tyrone, Down and Armagh.
“Only three in 10 are within legal status, creating a new illegal community with intentions of staying long-term despite onsetting immigration laws,” the survey says. “This group of Irish immigrants are, for the most part, underskilled, younger than what we’ve been seeing, and in a more difficult position than their forerunners in the 1980s.”
Recent changes in immigration laws have clamped down on illegal immigrants, threatening those who overstay their visitation times with 3- to 10-year bans from entering America again if they are caught overstaying. That makes for a more precarious situation for these new arrivals than for the last wave of Irish immigrants in the 1980s. Now, there are even fewer avenues for status legalization, with fewer visas available in the lottery.
But despite the added hardship, a booming market in construction and the chance of earning good money away from home are proving hard to resist.
“They’re really caught between Belfast and Dublin, there’s not much for them over there as far as they can see,” says Christine Magee, an immigration counselor who works with the Catholic Charities organization, and operates an outreach legal advice session at the Aisling Irish Center in Yonkers.
“They’ve no great plans, they just thought they’d try it out and don’t seem too worried about it,” she said of some of the recent Northern Irish arrivals. “Some have come via London, and have friends or cousins here who help them set up here.”
Ann Donnelly, employment officer for the Emerald Isle center, said most of this new sub group have completed their GCSE’s, and perhaps one year of a technical college before coming here.
“Perhaps they come through word of mouth passed back from a friend over here, that there is money to be made,” she said. Adventure and work seem to be the major motivating factors, Donnelly said. However, she added, there is a tendency for those going back to paint a far brighter picture of the immigrant life than the reality they are living. It is a case of the greener grass on the other side.
Many of the new Northern arrivals come from the most disadvantaged, high-unemployment areas in the North, where there are few opportunities with local employers, and scarce chance of what they would see as worthwhile careers.
While Irish unemployment is down and the unemployment rate for the North of Ireland overall stood at 9.6 percent in 1997, according to the 1998 Irish Almanac, some areas still have a disproportionate number of jobless. According to 1996 figures, for example, County Tyrone had some of the highest unemployment rates — Strabane had 17.6 percent, Dungannon 13.2 percent, and Omagh 11.9 percent.
Agencies working in other Northeastern U.S. cities are also witnessing a similar shift.
Denise McCool, an employment officer in the Boston Irish Outreach center, has seen a definite increase in the numbers of Northerners coming for advice.
McCool said she attributes some of that shift to a changing political climate in Northern Ireland. During times of high violence, people preferred to stay within their communities, and often leave the area when the situation appears more stable, she said.
That there were now less opportunities in Britain had also contributed to the number of young Northern Irish arriving on these shores, McCool said.
In Boston, the Northern presence has certainly increased, more so in the last year than before, according to Mark Mathers, a financial planner from Newry who is now president of the University of Ulster alumni club and secretary of the St. Columbkilles Gaelic Football club.
“When I first started in the club, I would say 75 to 80 percent of the people were from Dublin. Now about 50 percent are from Ulster,” he said.
Four years ago, the Newry presence in Boston was minimal, as many of those from the North or border counties would go onto to New York or Philadelphia, a Northern stronghold in America. Now, he said, Newry was a more common element in the city.
In Philadelphia, a large contingent of Northern Irish has already established itself in the region’s Upper Darby area, say observers there. But here, too, a younger group of new arrivals is making its presence felt.
“Philadelphia is a Northern town,” said Tom Conaghan, a Donegal native who is president of the Federation of Irish Societies in the area.
“If you go to Upper Darby, about 15 out of 20 people at an Irish bar will be from the North,” Conaghan said.