Biggest Emigration Wave Since Potato Famine : Wearin’ of the Green Card Gets Irish Eyes Smiling

United Press International

Debbie, a young computer programmer, baby sits. Paul, an auto mechanic, works as a plasterer. Theresa, once a schoolteacher, cleans houses--payment in cash, thank you.

They are among an estimated 150,000 young people who have left Ireland for America in the last five years without work visas, fleeing a stagnant Irish economy and 20% unemployment for a chance at a better life.

They came “on holiday” with tourist visas, showing immigration officials return tickets they later sold.

Now, as illegal aliens in the promised land, they live in limbo, never sure who to trust, fearing deportation.


This exodus by Ireland’s best and brightest young people--to Australia, England and the United States--is the largest emigration wave since the Great Potato Famine brought 2 million to America by coffin ship between 1845 and 1870.

“There’s a sense among some that the United States owes the Irish something. When hundreds of thousands came in after the famine, they were free to come into the country. Not anymore,” said a spokeswoman for the Irish Immigration Reform Movement.

Irish Arrived Later

Amnesty provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act allow illegal aliens who arrived in the U.S. before 1982 to apply for permanent resident status. The Irish wave didn’t begin until after that date.


In addition, sanctions under the new law made it a crime for employers to knowingly hire illegals. That has made it more difficult for them to find work.

Josephine, 27, is from Cork. She and her husband, a bricklayer, came to Boston last year. She works as a secretary. She got that job only because her employer didn’t understand the new employment eligibility verification form.

“The past couple of months it has all gone to hell because of the employer sanctions,” Josephine said. “People back home think we’re earning fortunes. We all have rents to pay and huge telephone bills because we like to call home. But it is better than going home, where there is nothing.”

Among Boston’s estimated 20,000 to 25,000 undocumented Irish, Dublin-born and trained lawyers toil at construction jobs. Some nurses tend bar instead of the sick.


One young woman, interviewed in an Irish pub, graduated from college with a degree in chemistry. Instead of doing laboratory research, she waits on tables and cleans houses. “You’ve always got the fear, you’re never sure who could give you away,” she said. “Yet, I can’t imagine going back home.”

These underground Irish have set up their own self-help network. They raise funds to press for immigration reform, to help those in legal jams, those who run up huge medical bills without health insurance protection.

It is not unusual for new arrivals--still seeking work--to share a one-bedroom apartment with 6 others. They change jobs and apartments frequently out of fear that the Immigration and Naturalization Service will find them.

Some, like Debbie, never held a job before they left Ireland. Like her, some are exploited by employers or landlords.


Debbie, 21, is from Cavan, a rural county bordering Northern Ireland. Unemployment is high, primarily due to the closure of American-built factories once government tax incentives expired.

She came to Boston 18 months ago, giving up a computer programming job she held in London for two years. “The good old American attraction won out,” she explains with a pleasant brogue and a smile.

After a few months’ of waitressing, she got her first steady job baby sitting for a couple in the suburbs. They had one child, let Debbie use a family car for commuting and paid her well. A scheduling dispute changed everything.

Owed Back Pay


The couple, who owed her $900 in back pay, wanted her to work during an agreed week off. “They threatened me about how much I had to lose, implying they would notify Immigration about me,” she said. “I just walked out of their house. They never paid me the money. Now I have to leave my apartment and forfeit a $1,200 security deposit so they can’t find me. I can’t risk staying there.”

Debbie found another baby sitting job.

“For every case of exploitation we’ve documented, there are literally thousands more,” says Kieran Staunton, a young Irishman with legal resident status who works in the Irish Immigration Reform Movement.

“The new law is an invitation to exploitation. Under-the-table jobs are few and far between. The employer knows that if you leave, you’ll have a tough time getting another job,” Staunton said. “They tell you, ‘No, you’re not getting your raise. You’re lucky to have a job.’ ”


Catherine, 31, is an office worker from Cork City. In her two years in Boston, she has worked as a baby sitter, a receptionist and a word processor.

“At the end of the day, you want to give something to this country, but you can’t, because you can’t pay taxes,” Catherine said. “We’re here quite willing to work hard, and not able to get work. Yet every second business is crying for workers. It is so destroying.

“It’s genuinely a very tough life. You are afraid to take on expensive commitments--a car, a house, because you don’t know where you’ll be next week.”

She can’t get a bank account, lies about her immigration status and keeps a low profile.


“I’m not a deceitful person,” Catherine said. “The Irish are not deceitful people, but sometimes the will to survive overcomes us.”

The IIRM, a non-partisan group, was started by undocumented Irish to press for amnesty for all illegal aliens now in the country, and to increase quotas for people from 36 countries denied non-preferential visas under the 1965 Immigration Act.

It began in New York last spring, and opened a Boston chapter in August. Efforts are under way to build chapters in San Francisco and Chicago, which also have large pockets of undocumented Irish.

Only 400 Irish have gained amnesty under current immigration law. A quota relaxation and expanded amnesty have been proposed in Congress with no indication that passage is likely.


Rep. Joseph Kennedy II (D-Mass.) filed a bill in October to expand amnesty to any Irish immigrants who arrived before Sept. 1, 1987. A separate bill by his uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Rep. Brian J. Donnelly (D-Mass.) would provide additional work visas for future Irish immigrants.

Boston Mayor Involved

Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn has called for an expansion of immigration quotas. He also pledged that the city will offer free medical care and legal advice to all needy immigrants regardless of their status.

The migration has been so extensive that entire Irish football (soccer) teams have come over, decimating the leagues back home. Paul, the mechanic, used to play on a football team in Cavan. He says seven of the other 12 men on his old team now live in New York.


During warm weather, the Irish tricolor flag flies over Dilboy Field in nearby Somerville, where hurling is the preferred sport.

The emigration wave has helped rejuvenate some Roman Catholic parishes in Boston. For the first time in years, it is standing room only at Sunday Mass at St. Mark’s Church in the heavily Irish Dorchester section. Some Masses are now said in Gaelic.

Theresa, a redheaded ex-schoolteacher from Galway, taught math and science for a year near Boston, then spent two years teaching in a parochial school. She now runs a cleaning service with her sister. The hours are long, she says, but the pay is better.

She has flown home for family visits three times since her arrival in 1984, risking the chance that she will be deported upon her return.


“When you go home, you pack everything, out of fear you’ll not be able to come back in,” Theresa said.

Brendan, a bricklayer now living in South Boston, can’t understand the legal barriers being placed in the way of him and his hard-working colleagues when so many jobs go unfilled.

“The ‘Help Wanted’ section of the Boston Globe is bigger than an entire newspaper at home,” Brendan said. “Legalize us tomorrow morning and you’ve got 150,000 taxpayers--working taxpayers.”

Job-hunting is a problem not only for illegal Irish.


One eager young man from Tipperary arrived in Boston in October with a permanent resident visa. He applied for work right away, before the bureaucracy could process either his “green card” work permit or Social Security card.

Door Slammed

At job site after job site, the door was slammed in his face.

“They wouldn’t believe I was here legally,” he said. “Straight away. they’d say: ‘You’re illegal.’ They wouldn’t accept my passport, which is marked ‘permanent resident.”


“A lot of the big companies don’t want to know you unless you have your green card. There are Irish everywhere. You know the accent right away. ‘Where are you from? What do you do?’ That’s exactly what you get asked,” he said.

“In Tipperary, half the population is gone. I came over here to make a few bob that I can send home to my father. He’s barely surviving.”