An Irishman in New York: Irregular Irish Migrants in the United States

Dermot is an Irish businessman in New York. The 36-year-old runs a construction company and employs five workers. Dermot, his wife Eileen, their five-year-old son Brian and two cats, live on the first floor of a three-story multi-family-house in Yonkers, a city located two miles north of Manhattan.

At first sight, they seem like an ordinary happy, peaceful family. But there is something that few would think of when talking to an English native speaker in the US – Dermot and Eileen are irregular migrants. Their son Brian was born in the US and is thus automatically an American citizen.

“I didn’t think of myself as an irregular migrant until my driver’s license expired in April of 2006,” says Dermot.

After 9/11, a Social Security Number is required to acquire or renew a driver’s license. In the State of New York, a driver’s license is used as proof of identification since that state does not issue identity cards. A drivers’ license is sufficient identification to open a bank account, rent an apartment and establish utility services. For irregular migrants, the loss of a driver’s license has been the most important and life-changing event change after 9/11.

Dermot is now forced to drive without a license to visit his customers, like all of his employees who are irregular migrants from Latin America.

Dermot completed high school in Ireland and although he did not continue any formal education, he taught himself how to lay tiles and do electrical work. Four years ago, when his former boss announced he was going back to Ireland, Dermot took over the construction business. He applied for and received a tax number and a business license. And he pays his taxes like every American, but as an irregular migrant he does not have access to all the benefits of a citizen or a permanent resident.

When Eileen was pregnant she worried about the day of her son’s birth. “When we went to the emergency room I was scared that they might ask for some sort of document that I could not provide,” Eileen remembers. At the hospital she showed her bank account to prove that she would be able to pay for the medical expenses without insurance, and was admitted. In the US, irregular migrants receive medical treatment in case of an emergency; childbirth is considered an emergency.

Little Brian received full health care for one year. Dermot and his wife cannot buy private health insurance because they have no documents, but they decided to buy health insurance for Brian and pay USD 20 per month. “At the very least, I want my son to be covered,” says Dermot.

Brian has one big wish: “I want to play with my cousins and my grandparents.” But even though he could travel freely all over the world, his parents do not want to accompany him. If they leave the US, they will be banned from reentry for ten years. This practice has been in place for decades but wasn’t entirely enforced until increased security concerns following 9/11.

“Brian knows his grandparents only over the telephone,” says Eileen. “They would love to see him, but they are too old to travel overseas.” Even though they speak to relatives in Ireland every week over the telephone and the Internet, the ties loosen, but Dermot and Eileen are scared to go back. “People say it’s hard to fit into a society after being away for so long,” Eileen worries.

They say Ireland has changed tremendously since they left 11 years ago. At that time, Dermot and most of his friends were unemployed and living off the dole. But in recent years Ireland’s economy has boomed. Now, Eastern European migrants flock to the “Celtic Tiger” to try their luck.

A recent IOM report, “Managing Migration in Ireland: A Social and Economic Analysis”, compiled on behalf of Ireland’s National Economic and Social Council, confirms that although Ireland was traditionally a country of emigration, it has become a country of immigration in less than 10 years.

The report found that migrants helped increase economic growth, eased labor market shortages, improved output and contributed to reducing earnings inequality.

Between April 2004 and April 2005, Ireland recorded its highest level of immigration – 70,000 persons, and the lowest level of emigration –16,600 since current records began. This net migration made Ireland the country most affected by migration in relation to size than any other European Union member state since the EU enlargement of May 2004.

Notwithstanding the economic boom in their home country, Dermot and Eileen would do almost anything to stay in the US. So they joined the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR), an advocacy group that meets every Wednesday in New York City.

Mary Brennan organizes the weekly meetings. “We write letters to senators and congressmen, and we’ve held rallies in San Francisco and Washington, DC,” she says.

The last rally took place in March 2007 in a hotel on Capitol Hill, with several senators present, among them Hillary Rodham Clinton and Edward Kennedy.

As the 3,000 Irish assembled in front of the US Capitol wearing green and white T-shirts emblazoned with the message “Legalize the Irish.org” many passers-by thought it was a joke. “Illegal Irish in America? That’s funny.”

The Irish are well-liked in the US because many Americans are able to trace back their roots to Irish immigrants. St. Patrick’s Day is an important part of the American cultural heritage, and every year parades take place in large cities to celebrate this Irish tradition.

In the second half of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Irish fleeing crop failures and famine migrated to the US. And in late 20th Century the Irish continued to migrate to the US.

“It was a tradition for many years for Irish to come to the United States to work when they were young,” says Neil O’Dowd, founder of ILIR. “We estimate there are about 50,000 illegal Irish in the US.”

In recent years, migration in the opposite direction has begun: As the economy improves, Ireland becomes a more attractive destination for young Americans.

Diana Pardue, Chief of Museum Services at Ellis Island, noticed that in recent years an increasing number of Americans are asking for copies of their Irish ancestors’ passports which the families had donated to the museum. “They need them to apply for Irish citizenship,” she explains.

Anyone who can prove that at least one of their grandparents or great-grandparents was Irish is eligible to apply for Irish citizenship. This is attractive for Americans of Irish descent for many reasons; one of them is that Irish citizens are allowed to live and work in all 27 countries of the European Union.

Mary Brennan knows for sure that she would never build a life in the underground again: “Last year one of my little brothers, who is still in college, came to visit me. He wanted to stay but I urged him not to. I’m glad he went back to Ireland.”

Silke Oppermann is a freelance journalist who reports for Deutsche Welle Radio, ARD Radio affiliates, and other media outlets.