Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

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.

Fri, Jun 22, 2012, 10:04


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 

Construction work in New York is a tempting option, even for those without visas. Photograph: Ernst Haas/ Getty Images

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 arriving without work visas 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.”

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.”

Niall O’Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice newspaper and co-founder of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR), says the new influx of young Irish into the US should provide a renewed impetus for the Irish community there, and in Ireland, to continue to push for better rights for the undocumented.

“These young people believe in a flawed American dream, but an American dream nonetheless, that they can come here and good things will happen for them,” he says.

A proposed new E3 visa for Irish immigrants, which would allow up to 10,000 Irish people to work legally in the US for up to two years, was put forward in a bill introduced by New York senator Charles Schumer last December. Undocumented Irish currently living in the US would be able to apply for the proposed visa, which could be extended indefinitely.

The bill gained the support of 53 senators, but lacked endorsement from Republicans, and has since been shelved, but O’Dowd and the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform has not given up hope.

“There is a wave of emigration every generation from Ireland – the 1920s, 1950s, 1980s and again now,” he says. “That is going to continue, as we are an emigrant nation, and there is a responsibility on both sides of the Atlantic to provide emigrants past and present who are willing to contribute to American life with a viable future.”

Mark (38), New York: ‘I haven’t seen my sisters for five years. I can’t recommend this’

“I left Donegal in the early 1990s with my girlfriend. We didn’t plan to stay long in New York, but 18 years later we’re still here.

“I had trained as a joiner in Ireland, and found work easily as a carpenter here. I now work as a project manager for a construction company.

“We are married and have three children. They are all American citizens even though we are undocumented ourselves. I can’t see us ever moving back. The kids don’t know any other place but America.

“My sister got married last week in Donegal, the fifth family wedding I’ve missed since I came over here, not to mention the passing of grandparents, aunts and uncles.

“I haven’t been able to go home, but my family have been over to see me down through the years. My sisters are all married with children now so I haven’t seen them for about five years, and my parents are in their late 60s so I don’t know if they will be able to travel that distance for much longer.

“I was 20 when I came out here. When you’re that young and there’s no prospect of work at home in Ireland, you don’t think too far ahead. Down the line, you think you should have done things differently. I wouldn’t recommend this life. If I could do it all again I wouldn’t stay without my papers.”