For Legal Immigration, Most Irish Need Not Apply
Mar. 16, 1986
NEW YORK (AP) _ Stuck in a small town in County Donegal with a low-paying job and an unpopular political cause, the young Irishman took an escape route favored by millions of his countrymen over the past two centuries. He went to America.
For his sea-bound predecessors in the 19th century, the Atlantic crossing was a turbulent, five-week ordeal. For Patrick, it was a smooth, five-hour jet flight to Kennedy International Airport, complete with movie and steak dinner.
A year after his arrival from the Emerald Isle, Patrick's pursuit of the Irish-American dream is still hampered by his lack of a credential of ironic pigmentation: a green card.
It is also hampered by the daily fear that comes with being an illegal alien - a fear so pervasive that he agreed to discuss it only under an assumed name.
The Republic of Ireland's stagnant economy and growing population has driven unemployment to 17 percent, 2 1/2 times higher than in the United States, and convinced more and more young Irish men and women to seek work across the Atlantic.
But only 1,397 Irish were legally admitted as resident immigrants last year, compared to an average of 40,000 a year in the first decade of the century, 21,000 a year between 1921 and 1930, and 7,000 a year between 1956 and 1965.
In that year U.S. immigration law was amended to give people from nations outside Europe a better chance to immigrate. But the number of qualified Asians and Latin Americans increased geometrically, and soon they were squeezing out Europeans.
Unless they are the spouses, children or parents of U.S. citizens, most Irish citizens must wait for years to enter as resident immigrants. Under this law, the Irish ancestors of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Ronald Reagan - men with no special skills and no close relatives here - probably would have been denied entry.
The law discriminates against ''the people who built this country,'' says Michael Flannery, grand marshal of the 1983 New York St. Patrick's Day Parade. But hopes for change appear doomed by Congress's inability to agree on general immigration reform.
Accordingly, most of the new Irish immigrants enter on temporary tourist visas and stay behind when they expire.
Patrick had to convince U.S. consular officials in Ireland that he would only be visiting relatives in the United States, and that he would return. He also had to endure a grilling at the airport here by an immigration officer who said, ''You're not planning to go back, are you?''
But once they are in, the Irish illegals are reasonably secure that nothing will root them out, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
In interviews, immigration officials do not so much deny the existence of any growth in illegal Irish entry as they emphasize the relative enormity of the agency's primary problem, the flow of aliens across the Mexican border.
''We're just a drop in the ocean,'' says Claire, a 26-year-old Dubliner whose visa expired two months ago. She refused to give her last name in an interview.
Although everyone agrees there are more Irish illegals in the country, estimates of their number range from 45,000 to 70,000. Most live in or near Chicago, San Francisco and the big Northeastern cities.
Tom Murray, a retired accountant who works for immigration law reform, estimates that one in five Irish visitors stays behind illegally, an estimate that seems reasonable to Frank Vardy, a city Planning Department demographer.
About 85,000 Irish were admitted to the United States last year on temporary visas. If 20 percent, or 17,000, stayed behind, they outnumbered those who entered legally by more than 12-to-1.
''If you meet a young Irish person here who is working, the chances are he or she is here illegally,'' Vardy says.
These illegal Irish aliens range from university graduates unable to find the right job to laborers unable to find any job.
''There was nothing back there for me,'' recalls Patrick. ''There was nothing there for anybody.''
He also claims that his membership in Sinn Fein, a political party which advocates using violence to unite the Irish Republic and British Northern Ireland, led to his being bothered by police and discriminated against by employers.
But in New York, with the aid of cousins, he soon found a job and an apartment in a working-class Bronx neighborhood. Within a few weeks he knew more than 50 other people, many also illegal, and was making more money tending bar than he ever made in Ireland.
He joined a growing community of young immigrants who gather at Irish pubs, listen to Irish radio programs and go to Gaelic Park in upper Manhattan on weekends to watch imported Irish teams compete at hurling, a rugged hybrid of lacrosse, rugby and soccer.
Unlike the Irish peasants who fled the Great Famine of the 1840s, these more sophisticated, better educated immigrants are better able and more likely to return home after a few years in America with enough to buy a house or business.
Most work as bartenders, waitresses, construction workers, secretaries or domestics, and many have two jobs. They often are paid off the books, although some make up Social Security numbers and pay taxes.
The Irish illegals face some frustrations. Most of the better, higher- paying jobs are closed to them; a trip home for a wedding or a funeral risks a brush with immigration officials upon re-entry; a serious injury or illness means bills for which there may be no insurance coverage.
Michael Collins, spokesman for the Irish consulate in New York, acknowledges that emigration is no answer to his nation's problems.
''It does engender a certain malaise and a certain despair in the country, a feeling the country has let them down,'' he said. ''It's an admission of absolute failure if you tell someone without a job, 'Take the next plane out to JFK.'''