No job. No papers. No going home
OVER ON THE west coast, Celine Kennelly of the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center in San Francisco says the jobs market is picking up again after a two-year downturn, and for many young people, riding out the Irish recession by taking a job in construction, hospitality or childcare in the US can be an attractive option, even if the work is under the table.
“There’s a lot of young skilled and qualified people coming out here, intending to stay a little while and earn some money,” she says.
“Young lads with masters degrees in engineering are working as labourers on construction sites, and girls with law degrees, even PhDs, are taking jobs as nannies or waitresses because they have no option but to work for cash. It is fine for a while, but after a year or two they will probably want to go home and begin their careers. The problem is, the longer they stay, the more roots they put down and the harder it is to leave.”
Michelle, a 31-year-old teacher from Co Down, is one of the hundreds of Irish people who have sought help from the pastoral centre in recent times. She quit her job two years ago and headed over to San Francisco in search of a change of scene.
“I arrived here with no job, nowhere to live, no papers and no friends,” she says. “I didn’t try to get a visa, but everything has been so easy. I haven’t found my undocumented status to be a hindrance.”
Michelle found work almost straight away making sandwiches in a coffee shop where they were willing to pay under the table, and after eight months she was promoted to manager of the owner’s new outlet.
“I had planned to go back to Northern Ireland before the first year was up, but I fell in love with the lifestyle here, being able to cycle to work everyday instead of driving in the dark, and going to the beach on my days off,” she says.
With a degree and a masters under her belt, Michelle is one of the few in her new circle of Irish friends to have a third-level qualification. The vast majority of them are undocumented like her, and working as nannies or construction workers.
ACCORDING TO Kennelly, life as an undocumented immigrant may seem easy and carefree at first, but there are huge sacrifices to be made in the long term. Settling in the US means forgoing trips home for good, as those who oversay by less than 12 months are not allowed to re-enter the country for a period of three years. Overstaying by longer can incur a 10-year ban. The undocumented are not entitled to a social-security number or a driver’s licence, and cannot apply for a bank loan or purchase health insurance.
“Young people who are coming out here now intending to stay illegally need to be aware that things aren’t as easy for the undocumented Irish as they used to be,” Kennelly says. “When I moved here in 1999, there were ways of getting a social-security number or a driver’s licence. You couldn’t travel home easily, but day-to-day living wasn’t a problem. Enforcement of the immigration laws has really tightened up over the last decade. If you are undocumented, you have to live to a higher moral standard if you want to avoid deportation, which means abiding by rules and regulations right down to leaving a bar on time when it closes at night. There is no leeway.”