Irish and Illegal In America. `IRELAND HAS LOST ANOTHER GENERATION'
EVERY Monday night, hundreds of Irish queue outside a bustling Woodside newsstand. Hungry for hometown news, they wait to buy any of the dozens of papers from Ballyshannon to Bantry that are flown in weekly from Ireland. They loudly exchange greetings in hearty brogues. But underlying the bawdy camaraderie is a gnawing tension about their employers' requesting a green card, coupled with the hope that they may be able to erase the appellation ``illegal'' from ``Irish.''
``Probably 90 percent of us here are illegal,'' said Gerald, an undocumented bricklayer who was recently laid off. ``But we don't think we're doing anything illegal. All we want is a chance to make a decent life for ourselves.''
``Legalize the Irish,'' read the green and white posters taped to the walls of a basement office nearby. The defiant message is echoed by many illegal Irish immigrants who visit here, the headquarters for the Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM), a lobbying and advisory group.
``Ireland has nothing to offer. Nobody's even thinking about staying home,'' said Geraldine, an Irish illegal who has lived in Woodside since 1986. Unemployment in Ireland was 19 percent in 1988. ``The kids who are about to leave school are all wondering where they'll go next. Ireland has lost another generation.''
In the last five years this new wave in the historic tide of Irish emigration has brought about 135,000 young adults, principally to New York, Boston, and Chicago, according to the IIRM. (The Irish government claims the figure is closer to 40,000.)
The ``new Irish'' come to the United States as students and tourists and stay on as undocumented aliens. Many forego social security numbers and bank accounts that would tie them to the mainstream. They endure an underground existence marked by furtiveness, homesickness, and an uncertain future, for the chance of employment and a decent life.
``My parents are getting older, my father's been sick, and I just have to see them,'' said Susan, an undocumented alien from Dublin. ``I'm going back to Ireland in July, knowing that I might not be able to return to America.''
Many Irish illegals say they can endure as long as there is the possibility that they will one day be lawfully admitted into the US, as were the 4.7 million Irish who came before them, according to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) census figures.
``You see all that the Irish have done in the US, and yet we're supposed to run around as underground people,'' said Geraldine. ``It's very demeaning, really, because we have so much to offer.''
IRONICALLY, the new Irish must isolate themselves and meld into Hibernian precincts like Woodside, which is laced with Irish pubs and social clubs. They are shadowed by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which marks them for potential deportation.
IRCA is a three-part program designed to deter illegal immigration while offering amnesty to illegals who have lived in the US since 1982. The law puts the employer at the forefront of enforcement: employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers can be fined or imprisoned.
The new law often forces Irish illegals (as well as other illegals) to cling to their employers in a form of indentured servitude, said an IIRM spokesman. Those illegals forced to work marathon hours for minuscule wages often don't complain out of fear.
``The sources of employment are drying up, and it's very hard to keep working,'' said Patrick Hurley, a 26-year-old founding member of the IIRM. ``You can't go back to Ireland, there's no work to be had there.''
In another of the ironies that characterize the Irish immigration experience here, a 15-year period of relative economic prosperity in Ireland meant that only a fraction of the thousands of Irish now in the US qualified for IRCA's amnesty program.
With good economic times at home, Irish emigration slowed to about 1,000 per year in the '60s and '70s. But hard times and high taxes prompted by an economic downturn in 1984 soon drove out more than 30,000 annually, says the Irish government. By then it was too late for Irish to benefit from IRCA. Only 600 once-illegal Irish qualified for amnesty.
According to the IIRM, Irish emigration has been further hampered by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which raised immigration quotas and favored immigrants with family members already in the US - mostly Asians and Latin Americans. The Irish complain that as their emigration slowed, the family chain that bound generations of their kin to the US was cut.
The IIRM is pushing for legislation to create an additional immigration standard based on English literacy, education, work experience, and the needs of the US labor market. A Senate version, the Kennedy-Simpson bill, has been passed; House action remains a question.
``This [proposed] legislation reflects America's economic needs, and America's economic needs coincide with our interests as well,'' says IIRM's Pat Hurley.
Urban Institute studies found that immigrants in the Los Angeles metropolitan area did not take jobs away from US citizens, and may have stimulated the local economy. However, ``little attention'' has been paid to how skilled Western European immigrants might affect US jobs, said Michael White, a senior research associate for the Institute.
Meanwhile, special immigrant visas are distributed via lottery for the 36 countries ``disadvantaged' (according to the US State Department) by the 1965 immigration act. The first round of the unusual lottery won 4,134 immigrant visas for Irish citizens, according to the Irish Consulate.