But This Time, Few Can Enter Country Legally : The Earnin’ O’ the Green Again Beckons Irish Immigrants to America
Decades ago, people often snickered that Ireland’s No. 1 export was people. Irish emigration--and the joke--is on the rise again.
About 14,000 Irish emigrated to other countries in the year ending in April, 1985--more than double the previous year. Thousands more are believed to be flocking to the United States to work as illegal aliens.
Altogether, legal and illegal emigration for the year 1984-85 may have been 25,000 people, the most since the 1950s and ‘60s, Labor and Public Service Minister Ruairi Quinn said.
“Unemployment, high taxation and family restrictions are the main reasons people go,” said Kate Shanahan of the Youth Emigration Action Group, a government-subsidized organization set up to advise people on the pitfalls of unprepared emigration.
Ireland’s unemployment rate is 17%. In some rural towns, it’s as high as 40%. A walk down Dublin’s O’Connell Street reveals large numbers of idle young people.
In addition, Ireland has the youngest population in Europe. More than half of the nation’s 3.5 million people are under 25.
“It’s an attitude here,” Shanahan said. “There’s a lot of cynicism--the country’s going down the drain, there’s no incentive to do anything for yourself.”
“You get so fed up with the place you just want to get out,” said Clare Cullotty, in her early 20s, who along with Miriam Slattery works with Shanahan in the action group.
Rent Allowance Difficult
“It’s hard to get a rent allowance here,” Shanahan said. “If you’re still living at home, your parents sort of look at you when you’re 18 and wonder, ‘What are you still doing here?’ It’s the people with the get up and go that leave.”
Most legal emigrants head for London, where they believe jobs are more plentiful and where they can be given an apartment and a weekly paycheck under the British welfare system.
Illegal emigrants often go to the United States on tourist visas and stay, working at odd jobs, usually in heavily Irish communities in Boston and New York.
U.S. Allows Few
“I don’t know anyone who’s gone over (to the United States) legally,” Cullotty said. Slattery and Shanahan agreed.
Only 1,397 Irish were legally admitted to the United States as residents last year, contrasted with 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 1965, U.S. immigration law was amended to give people from nations outside Europe a better chance to enter the country. Soon the number of qualified Asians and Latin Americans increased dramatically, and they began squeezing out Europeans.
Unless they are spouses, children or parents of U.S. citizens, most Irish citizens must wait for years to enter as resident immigrants. Under the 1965 law, the Irish ancestors of John F. Kennedy and President Reagan probably would have been denied entry.
The law discriminates against “the people who built this country,” said Michael Flannery, grand marshal of the 1983 New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade. But hopes for change appear doomed by Congress’ inability to agree on immigration reform.
The U.S. Embassy in Dublin in the last year received a 50% increase in the number of requests for American immigration visas and is so backlogged that it is still working on 1983 requests.
“Now that the (Irish) economy is down again, emigration is going back up again,” an embassy spokeswoman said.
She said about 45,000 non-immigrant visas were issued last year to Irish men and women who said they wanted to vacation in the United States.
“How many of those people came back, who can tell?” the spokeswoman said.
“Emigration is a very volatile issue here,” she said. “Economically forced emigration is not a pleasant situation. It takes it into a political sphere.”
She and the women at the action group said that emigration now is unlike it was in the 1950s because Ireland is losing more than its farmers. It is losing its best and brightest young people who have technological skills.
“Fifty percent of college graduates in 1984 were unemployed last year,” Shanahan said. “About 20% of those with master’s degrees left the country. There are qualified solicitors (lawyers) who are working in bars across the street.”
Educated Get Preference
The better educated are chosen first for legal U.S. immigration. “Ireland is losing its more technically motivated,” the embassy spokeswoman said.
Shanahan said the Roman Catholic Church and government officials are reacting to the new emigration trend as if it were the same as in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“They were people who never wanted to leave,” Shanahan said. “They were trying to save money to come back here. Most of my friends (now) are not thinking of going for one or two years. They’re thinking of going for good.”
Irish-Americans find it hard to understand the desire of the young people to leave Ireland, Cullotty said.
“They see Ireland as a romantic place,” she said. “They don’t understand there’s no future here.”
Some illegals are exploited in the United States, where Irish-American businessmen put them to work in restaurants and bars at wages below the legal minimum, knowing they cannot complain to the authorities, Shanahan said.
In addition, the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said there have been “horror stories” of Irish women answering newspaper ads to care for two children in the United States, only to find too late that they would be taking care of five children and doing housework for small wages.
The Irish government is concerned about the rising emigration rate, a labor ministry spokesman said, but “it doesn’t seem to be anything to the extent that it was years ago.”
“Emigration seems to have increased, but so has the population,” he said.
When Ireland won independence in 1921, its population was 3 million. It declined to 2.8 million during the 1940s and 1950s. But since the early ‘60s it has increased to 3.5 million.
‘Not as Bad’
“If you look at it in that context, it (emigration)) is not as bad as in past years,” he said. “The government is concerned, however.”
Labor minister Quinn said that in the second half of the 1970s, Ireland experienced a net increase of people through immigration. But from 1981 to 1984, he said, the country lost an average of 6,000 people a year. And 14,000 people left Ireland during the year ending in April, 1985, Quinn said.
One government reaction was to set up Shanahan’s action group to look at the problem and put together an information book for young people thinking of emigrating.
“We have clear evidence . . . that too many young people leave Ireland ill-prepared and badly informed about what they should seek and what to expect,” Quinn said.
Troubles No Deterrent
But troubles experienced abroad--no jobs or low pay and discrimination--have not stemmed the flow.
“I think people are getting fed up with that very Catholic attitude--count your blessings because you’re poor,” Shanahan said.
As director of the action group, Shanahan said she earns $107 a week. Her colleagues make $83. Their temporary jobs end in October.
“Then we’ll be back on the boat or plane,” said Cullotty, who emigrated to England for a while before returning to Ireland.
‘Drop in the Bucket’
“As soon as you get home,” Cullotty said, “you think, ‘What did I come home for?’ I wouldn’t have come home but I couldn’t get a decent job” in England.
The actual extent of illegal flight to the United States is unknown. But the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said it’s believed to be “a drop in the bucket” contrasted with illegal emigration from other countries to the United States.
Most of the illegal Irish are caught when they try to return home with expired U.S. visas for the Christmas holidays.
“They come home. That’s why we catch them,” she said. “It’s so funny. They’re such a conservative, family-oriented nation. Around the holidays, in January, my refusal rate (for new visas) goes straight up.”