No job. No papers. No going home
Most new immigrants to the US plan to stay on illegally. But getting a job without documents is an uphill struggle, and the
prospect of never being able to travel home is a harsh price to pay, writes CIARA KENNY
FOR JAMES (22), AN unemployed construction worker in Co Cavan, prospects for the future seemed grim. After more than a year of scraping by on the dole, he had had enough of Ireland, and began to look for opportunities abroad.
Australia and Canada were the obvious choices, but a few of his old construction friends were making a good living in New York, so he decided to head out on a 90-day holiday visa to see if he could make a new life for himself there.
“It is not as easy as it used to be to find work here, especially if you don’t have a proper visa, but I knew an Irish lad who was working in a bar which happened to be looking for staff when I arrived in February, and they gave me a job as a barman. The Irish still seem to look out for their own,” he says.
“I don’t get paid a wage but I earn good tips, and I’m a lot better off financially now than I was at home. Before I left Cavan, a lot of my friends were unemployed or emigrating if they weren’t still in college. It was very hard to get a group of friends together to go out at weekends, because they just didn’t have the money. Over here I’m able to rent an apartment, save a little money, and have a good time as well . . . It is a lot different to Cavan.”
Like James, the majority of Irish arriving in the US are undocumented so it is difficult to quantify their numbers, but Irish immigration centres all over the country, especially in New York, are reporting a significant rise in new arrivals accessing their services in recent years, in line with the increase in emigration from Ireland since the recession began.
“We can only go by our own statistics, but I would safely say that the number of people emigrating here from Ireland increased by about five or six times if not more in the last few years,” says Orla Kelleher, executive director of the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers.
“Five years ago, people were arriving here by choice, but there are far more coming out of necessity now, particularly young people in their 20s who were involved in construction and can’t find work at home.”
During the Celtic Tiger years, most young people who arrived on a 90-day visa waiver would have taken up casual work and left before the waiver expired, but the majority of new immigrants now plan to stay on illegally from the moment they land, she says.
Aisling has provided advice on housing, employment, legal issues and social services to hundreds of new Irish arrivals already this year, from 18-year-old school-leavers to men in their 50s who are returning in search of work for the second or third time in their lives.
Other Irish immigration centres in New York have also struggled to cope with an increase in demand for their services, but numbers appear to be levelling out, says Kelleher.
“Younger people, particularly those with a college education, will favour emigrating to countries like Australia and Canada where it is much easier for them to work legally,” she says. “It is an uphill struggle for people who arrive here with no papers. The Irish community network is still strong, but there isn’t as much work around here now as there used to be, and it is understandable that companies will offer jobs to people who have been unemployed here for a time rather than someone fresh off the boat.”