By Patrick Markey and Harry Keaney
They found Liam Mason in Van Cortlandt Park.
For two days his body hung from a tree, slouching slightly against the weathered trunk as if he had simply fallen into a slumber.
Inside Mason’s pocket, Bronx detectives found a few dollars and an Irish passport stamped with a waiver visa set to expire on the day after his death. He had been in the United States for just three months.
A year after the 23-year-old Mason hanged himself in 1998 out of desperation to escape alleged exploitation, his death stands as a harsh warning about the vulnerability of immigrants living and working illegally in the U.S. Believing he was unable to escape, Mason’s friends said he took the only route he thought left open to him.
Then there is Declan Collins, a young plumber from County Down, who arrived in New York a year before Mason. Working illegally in the construction business, Collins is more than surviving in the United States. He earns three times what he would likely be paid in his hometown, Warrenpoint. He enjoys life in the vibrant Queens Irish community, has traveled back to Ireland several times, takes vacations in the U.S., and copes well with the struggle to make his way in New York.
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Mason and Collins, two very disparate examples of the undocumented Irish immigrant experience: One man found little but despair in the unfamiliar neighborhoods of America’s largest city; the other has thrived in New York’s illegal work market, flourishing through a grapevine of immigrant connections, even relishing the touch of adventure in his new life abroad.
Precarious at its worst, as Mason’s death starkly illustrated, the undocumented immigrant life can also lead to a success for those who found little in Ireland, as it has for Declan Collins and his friends. Although laced with uncertainty, the life of an undocumented immigrant can also bring rewards. The construction industry — one of the easier areas for undocumented to find work — is booming these days. It’s not hard for young immigrants to find hard, but lucrative, jobs.
Still, despite the success they may find in off-the-books employment, the new wave of illegal Irish immigrants still face exploitation and financial or health-insurance difficulties. That they are illegal, say Irish immigrant advocates, leaves the undocumented open to unscrupulous employers. And when difficulties do arise, what may be an easily solved problem for a legal resident — such as a serious injury — through lack of options can often throw the life of an undocumented immigrant into turmoil.
"The economy is good, people are busy, there is a demand out there," said Sheila Gleeson, who works at Boston’s Irish Immigration Center, a non-for-profit group that helps the area’s large Irish immigrant community. "But there are people who are just making it, just getting by. One little thing could put them under," she said.
The recent death of an undocumented Hispanic day laborer in Brooklyn focused attention on the plight of the New York’s illegal workers. The death prompted a round of hand-wringing from union officials and religious leaders who called for stricter monitoring of the undocumented employees.
In June 1998, the Irish community faced similar questions after Liam Mason’s death. His story highlighted the fragility of the undocumented experience, an example of what can go extremely wrong.
He was recruited in Castleblarney, Co. Monaghan. Mason’s friends alleged a subcontractor had promised him a $1,000 a week to work for a New Jersey company. The reality, however, proved very different.
"It seems he was promised a pot of gold over here, and it didn’t work out for him. In the end, all he did was talk about going home. He had nothing here," said one Bronx detective who investigated Mason’s death.
Paid little more than $40 for what was often a 14-hour workday, and with his passport taken from him, Mason committed suicide in desperation at his situation, according to friends from Monaghan.
A federal investigation into the incident brought a few results. The Department of Labor handed a $500 record-keeping violations fine to T-Small Paving, the Perth Amboy company where Mason’s friends said he worked for a subcontractor.
Nobody has been held responsible for luring Mason to the United States. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor said the case had been passed on to the New Jersey State labor department. A spokeswoman for the INS office in New Jersey said the investigations department had closed its inquiries.
If the federal investigation yielded little information about how Mason managed to fall so far, the incident shocked the Irish community into awareness about how easy it was for the undocumented to slip between the cracks.
"People are very conscious of it," said Father Tom Flynn, who works at the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers. "There are echoes of it. The sinister thing is that some people don’t heed the warnings. If it can happen to him, it can happen to others."
Most undocumented do well finding work here. Flynn said, for example, that the construction industry is at its best in 10 years.
Yet because they are breaking the law, undocumented Irish immigrants are still vulnerable to exploitation. Many resolve the issue themselves, walking away from a troublesome job rather than resorting to any legal recourse. Often the victim will simply put it down to the immigrant experience, taking care not to get burned again, say Irish immigrant advocates.
That could mean being paid low wages or not being paid at all, working overly long hours, working in dangerous conditions without safety requirements or handling hazardous materials.
"The exploitation of immigrants, in particular those not yet in legal status, continues to be an issue," said Kieran O’Sullivan, who works at the Boston Irish Immigration Center.
"Just last week I had a 20-year-old Irish immigrant walk into the office. He was employed by an Irish native, working in the moving business in Boston. He has not been paid for several weeks work and is currently unemployed and very short of money," O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan has contacted the state Attorney General’s office and the Better Business Bureau about the employer. While prosecutors may insist they are not interested in the immigration status of the victim, it often does little to reassure those in difficulty.
"Undocumented immigrants — because of their status — are less likely to feel comfortable pursuing the issue through legal means. Unfortunately, if the immigrant decides not to pursue the issue, the employer will continue to exploit others," O’Sullivan said.
Exploitation has appeared in other forms. In the Philadelphia suburbs, Irish woman have often found work in the wealthier neighborhoods, working as nannies and household help. But here, too, Irish immigrant advocates said, employers have sometimes taken advantage of a worker’s illegal status.
Several women worked for employers who demanded punishing hours and, in the case of live-in nannies, required the women to work well beyond their stated duties. Tom Conaghan, who runs the Philadelphia Immigrant Resource Center, said he now tries to dissuade female Irish nannies from taking live-in jobs.
In New York, more recently, a group of young Irish undocumented women fell prey to an Irish businessman who employed them as waitresses in a local restaurant. Sister Edna McNicholas, of the Aisling Irish Center, said the women were told they were on a training period, and were asked to work 12-hour days without being given anything to eat.
"After three days they were told they weren’t required and they weren’t paid because they were in training," McNicholas said.
Work may be abundant, but those in the undocumented Irish community often encounter trouble in another vital area: health insurance. Without documentation, their coverage options are limited. And while hospital emergency treatment is available to illegal immigrants under the subsidized Medicaid system, access to long-term medical tests and rehabilitation, for example, often remain out of reach.
Jim Barrett, an insurance expert who runs the Business Enterprise for Irish Americans, said the undocumented have little access to coverage for such specialized treatment.
Barrett and his partner, Terry Freehill, have been exploring the possibility of Irish-based health insurance for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Their company provides affordable health insurance to the Irish-American community.
"People are not aware of how little help is available," Freehill said. "Nobody knows about it until something happens."
Irish immigrant advocates say it is a common problem.
"It’s mostly from people getting into trouble. Young people who don’t think they need it, calling from the hospital not knowing what they should do," said Sheila Gleeson in Boston’s immigration center.
One client called the immigration center after an illness necessitated he take a battery of tests. "Before he knew what had happened, he had bills of $30,000, and the hospital pushing him to pay. He was asking what to do, saying, ‘I can’t go on with the treatments, I can’t pay the bills,’ " Gleeson said.
Difficulties aside, the booming economy in most American cities is at least providing plenty of work for those who look, say undocumented Irish immigrants who spoke to the Irish Echo.
Joining a local sports club or using contacts from home, it’s not hard to find somebody who will slip you the number of an employer looking for bricklayers or carpenters. The traditional trades — construction and bar work — still provide opportunity for the undocumented.
On a Queens street, on a cardboard sheet propped against a building, an observer of local demographics recently scrawled: "You are entering South Armagh."
Comparisons to the famous Derry gable wall aside, the sign reflects a shift in the immigrant origins in this working-class neighborhood, a short distance from the heartland of Queens Irish community in Woodside.
Here Declan Collins shares a four-bedroom apartment in a two-story house with a group of friends. All tradesmen from near the same area in County Down, the group seem to have little worry about health insurance, exploitation or the INS. For now, at least, it’s about working hard, putting some money away, meeting the girls, and enjoying the new life while it lasts.
Collins, a 21-year-old Warrenpoint plumber, first came to the United States four years ago on a program that helped teenagers from Northern Ireland experience life in America. If the idea was to broaden his mind, it worked. He left America knowing he wanted to return.
"I was only 17 at the time I went over there knowing nothing; it widened my horizons," he said. "And with that I decided to come back. We left with the intention of coming back. Here you’re living by yourself. It’s been a year a half and so far so good."
Colm McCann, one of his roommates, agreed. "I was out here in Cape Cod for the summer, and I went home. But I came back. Why not see the world while you’re young?" he said.
Collins and his friends have training in the construction trades, which means they can earn "decent" money, and share the bills and the $1,200 monthly rent for their apartment. With skills to offer and workers in demand, they say can earn from $800 up to $1,000 a week.
"All of us came out at the same time. We all went to the same school," Collins explained.
"People just say come out and try it out. Back home you’re making two to three hundred pounds a week. Over here you’re earning a thousand dollars a week," he said.
The adventure and the cash appealed to McCann, too.
"In a way you can just pack up for a week or go for the weekend. At home you couldn’t afford to do that," he said. "I was happy at home, I had no complaints at home. But here you’ve got a better lifestyle.
"I think it’s actually the fact that you’re living with all the boys, not living with your parents. Even though you make your own way with your parents, it’s just there’s more of a connection over here. It’s more or less a working holiday over here."
Two young friends recently joined Collins and McCann. They said they would stay for a few months to establish some financial security before moving to their own place.
"We heard how they were all enjoying themselves over here, and we heard what we we’re missing out on. It was just to come out and give it a go and try something different for a change," said one of the new arrivals, Kevin, a 23-year-old painter from County Down.
Collins landed his first job — plumbing in Manhattan — within a week of arriving in New York, he said.
"It’s just through people you know. People who came out before you; you have a few numbers," he said. "When I first came out I didn’t get work for a week. And then I was straight into work. I got my job through a friend, boys we were already friends with from over there.
"We had the right connections A good friend to show you the ropes."
Although getting a driver’s license has posed a problem for Collins, leaving the U.S. and returning apparently has not. He says he has left the country three or four times.
Both men said within a year they had adapted to the undocumented lifestyle with its informal network of support and new friends. But they also are aware of the precariousness of their life and uncertainty their legal situation.
"If you go home for something, you’ve all your stuff out here. If you can’t get back, you’d just be losing everything," McCann said.
"We know ourselves that we’re lucky. We know people who found it hard and still find it hard. If you get sick, everything you’ve saved could be gone and you’d have to start from scratch."
(The names of the undocumented immigrants in this article have been changed to protect their identities.)