‘After a summer in the US, all I could think about was going back for good’

Irish readers in the US share their stories of getting visas and green cards to stay

David Mulligan: ‘After a summer in the US, all I could think about was going back for good.’

David Mulligan: ‘After a summer in the US, all I could think about was going back for good.’


The Irish Government is planning a renewed push for immigration reform in the US ahead of the St Patrick’s Day visit by the Taoiseach to Washington.

It comes as the US Congress prepares for a contentious battle on immigration, after promises were made for a broad debate on the issue after the three-day government shut-down ended last week.

Irish groups have expressed concern about the impact of possible policy changes on immigrants and the undocumented Irish, especially the possibility of changes to the visa lottery system.

Irish Times Abroad asked readers living in the US to share their immigration story with us. Did they come to America legally? On what visa? What opportunities did the move open up for them? Are they happy to see the Irish Government pushing for immigration reform?

Here’s a selection of the stories we received.

David Mulligan, New Jersey: ‘I sent 200 applications for a Donnelly Visa’

I first came to the US on a J-1 visa in 1985, and I loved it. Flying in over Manhattan was incredible. It was also my first time on a plane. I remember when they opened the doors of the Aer Lingus 747 at JFK, and a plane load of Irish students immediately started stripping off jackets and sweaters as the interior temperature climbed into the high 90s.

After a summer in the US, all I could think about was going back for good. When I heard about the Donnelly Visa (NP-5) programme in 1987, I went for it. I don’t think they realised how many people would apply - I heard there were over 200,000 applications from Ireland alone.

They had some restrictions. Each application had to be typed and signed - no photocopies, and there was a target date on which the first 10,000 applications would be processed. I sent in 200 applications. I paid my younger brother to lick envelopes and put stamps on them, and I mailed 40 applications each workday that week. It paid off - I was picked, and while I was at the interview stage of the process, I got a notification letter for a second application. They certainly learned their lesson - the next round of visas had a one application per person limit.

Once here, I never looked back. When you’re here legally, you can get ahead without worrying about ICE, medical issues, etc. The US has been good to me. Current US immigration policy needs changing. I think they should just let people in legally, and get them in the system. It’s terrible to see families broken up and deported, sometimes to countries they have no memory of.

Deirdre Dillon: ‘I got my green card after six years’

I came over on an E-2 visa, working with a division of Bewley’s. They applied for a PERM visa for me - the application process took six months - and I finally got my green card after six years of the application pending.

I support undocumented people being given a path for permanent residency. The only Irish people I’ve met here are those who have a green card through marriage to an American they met abroad. They haven’t really had to deal with the nightmare that is the US immigration system, and don’t get how awful it is, and how limited the options are.

Alan Fagan moved from Ireland to Massachusetts with his three children aged 9, 4, and 2.
Alan Fagan moved from Ireland to Massachusetts with his three children aged 9, 4, and 2.

Alan Fagan, Massachusetts: ‘There are millions like me making a positive contribution to American society’

I arrived in the US in June of 2000 along with my wife and three children, then aged 9, 4, and 2. I had worked for five years for an American company in Dublin and they offered me a job in Massachusetts. They brought me over on an L-1A visa which allows a US employer to transfer a manager from one of its affiliated foreign offices to one of its offices in the United States.

I originally came on a two-year assignment but always knew that there was a possibility we would stay longer. We originally extended for a year, and then made it permanent, and were sponsored by my employer for a Green Card. That process took over a year. After five years holding Green Card we were eligible to apply for citizenship, which I did, and now carry Irish and US passports.

We are very happy with our life here; my wife and I have taken advantage of opportunities that would not have been available to us had we remained in Ireland. My son works in Indianapolis, my daughters are both in college and thriving. I now work for an Irish company and will visit Dublin at least five times this year so I feel like I have a foot in both camps. My wife Emma is a manager in a technology company and travels regularly to New York and London.

While changes in immigration policy in the US will not impact me directly, I am concerned about them. They stem from an anti-immigrant bias that unfortunately infects the party currently in power here. While the changes have the most impact on the undocumented, it would be naïve to believe it ends there; the latest proposals emanating from the White House would cut legal immigration by up to 50 per cent. Immigrants of all sorts are in the cross hairs in policies that are not only cruel but also counterproductive in the purported effort to “Make America Great Again”.

I am an immigrant who has been instrumental in getting an Irish company up and running here and we currently directly employ 11 US citizens. There are millions like me making a positive contribution to American society. The policies advocated by the current regime will discourage people like me from moving here; I know I certainly would not have made the move in 2000 if the current climate prevailed.

I believe there is a role for the Irish Government to play in pushing for immigration reform, and am happy to see them advocating on behalf of Irish people, some of whom are in very difficult situations here. The US government is currently holding DACA children hostage to their demands for stricter immigration policies, and are not going to demonstrate compassion to anyone caught up in the dysfunctional mess that is the current immigration system. In my view, anything the Irish Government can do to help Irish (and anyone else) here is to be welcomed with open arms.

Patrick Culliney, Arizona: ‘Allow Trump a chance to clean this mess up’

I arrived in New York in 1963 with $75 in my pocket. America was then and is now the land of opportunity. My personal career path would have been DOA had I hung arid Ireland in the 60s; it was a wide open road here in the US. I retired in Arizona after a successful career in the chemical industry. I am now an American.

We are a nation of immigrants, the beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. Living in Arizona gives us a front seat picture of the undocumented arrivals into the country; there are 300,000 illegals living in Arizona. Many are hard working folks and some are problem-makers. Many are exploited by employers who pay below minimum wages, or pay under the table. These actions only hurt this unfortunate group. They become trapped. How many of the illegal Irish along the east coast have found themselves in this mess?

Allow Trump a chance to clean this mess up and invite people through the front door; everybody, including immigrants, will then have a better future.

Dermot Keenan, Miami-Dade County, Florida: ‘We were lucky we had the financial means and know-how’

Came to US in 2012 on an L-1B Specialist Knowledge visa, got married in 2015 and applied for a green card through my US citizen wife. I am currently in the process of extending the initial two-year green card to a 10-year one. We were lucky we had the financial means and know-how to complete the process; like a lot of things in the US, the entire process is over-complicated, expensive and can be very off-putting.

Derek Creevey, New Jersey: ‘My first job was cleaning bathrooms’

I received a green card in 1994, when an extraordinary 40 per cent of the total US lottery green cards were allocated to Irish citizens. Because I didn’t know a soul in the US, my first job was cleaning bathrooms and serving snacks at a private beach club in the affluent Hamptons. Our dishwasher, from Galway, was on his way to an advanced engineering course at MIT; our lifeguard just graduated from UCC with a degree in computer science; and three of our waiters had degrees in finance from the University of Limerick. All had freshly minted green cards.

I went to US only because I was unable to find work at home, even though I had a MBA from UCD. This was before Intel built their center of excellence in Leixlip, which really put Ireland on the map among US business.

I met and married a wonderful Italian immigrant, and we built a life in the NY area. Despite my best efforts, and regular trips home, all three of our boys will tell you they’re more Italian than Irish or American.

While I never experienced being undocumented, I would urge Irish leaders not to lecture the US government in the way Taoiseach Enda Kenny publically chastised Donald Trump this time last year. I’m sure it made Enda, the Government and Irish people at home feel good to stand up to newly-elected Trump, but it had no impact, came across as grand standing, and alienated Republicans.

Instead, visiting Irish leaders need to view immigration reform through the US perspective. The US is struggling with immigration reform. Their need to reduce illegal immigration, while US business - led by tech firms - are laser focused on protecting their ability to attract talent from countries, beginning with India. The notion the US has an affinity - a soft spot - for Irish immigrants and all things Irish is quaint and dated. Ireland matters to the US because of the power and votes of Irish-Americans; favourable taxation for US corporations; and access to the EU market. US foreign direct investment in Ireland is second only to Canada. US political and business leaders interest in Ireland is driven by self-interest, not affinity.

Despite our size, Ireland has a lot of offer the US. Ireland’s quality of living is far higher than most of the US. Irish leaders should be focused on creating even more jobs and opportunities in Ireland so we don’t have to leave our families and travel to the US or other countries to make a living.

Justin Dunphy: ‘I left because I wanted a change’

I was fortunate in that I was not an economic emigrant, I had a good job in Ireland. I left because I wanted a change. I originally moved to Canada in 1988, but came down to Columbus in the US for some training, where I met my wife to be. I moved to the US to be with her in November 1989. I did it legally, followed the rules, filled the forms, and had no bother at all.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service issues a temporary two-year green card (which is blue), and then interview the husband and wife separately to verify this is not a marriage of convenience. We both forgot our wedding anniversary by a week. The agent said it wasn’t uncommon, and laughed. By then we had a son so it was obviously not a marriage of convenience. We went through all kinds of life events - most great some not. My wife passed away seven years ago unexpectedly.

I met a wonderful lady about a year later and we were married last year in Springfield castle near Newcastle West.

America is a wonderful place, and most of it is unknown to overseas visitors. Of course there are flaws. I still live in Columbus, have a home in Phoenix, and am planning on coming to Ireland in April for my eldest nephew’s wedding. As I approach retirement I do plan on visiting Ireland more, but the US is my home.

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