Number of illegal Irish in US is overstated, envoy claims

John Deasy says the figure for the undocumented is likely to be closer to 10,000

Government envoy John Deasy has queried the number of undocumented Irish in the United States, suggesting it is much lower than the 50,000 figure usually cited.

In the first official indication by the Government that it is prepared to challenge the previously accepted figure of 50,000 typically used to quantify the number of undocumented, Mr Deasy said he believes it is closer to 10,000.

Mr Deasy, who is the Government’s envoy to the US Congress, met immigration experts and researchers in the field during a visit to Washington last month. He was citing research from the Pew Research Center in Washington.

According to analysis by demographer Jeffrey Passel, one of the foremost experts in the US on immigration and the demography of specific ethnic groups, the number of unauthorised Irish immigrants living in the US between 2005 and 2015 was in the range of 10,000-15,0000.


His research is based on data provided by the American Community Survey, a major study conducted by the US census bureau each year, based on a sample of three million people.

Pew also estimates that 115,000 legal Irish immigrants were living in the US in 2015, a slight decrease from the estimate of 125,000 a decade earlier. About three-quarters of legal Irish immigrants have become American citizens, according to the research.

Mr Deasy said he felt it was vital to get an accurate estimate of the number of undocumented Irish following his appointment by the Taoiseach as envoy to US Congress last month.

“There is so much speculation about how many undocumented Irish are actually living in the United States. I thought it was important to get an independent assessment of that number. Ultimately having the correct data will make it easier to find a solution down the road.”

He said that the lower figure would not affect the Government’s commitment to resolving the issue. “In our opinion the number does not diminish the severity of the problem in any way and will make no difference to how we approach this issue.”

He said middle-aged and older men, many of whom are facing an uncertain future and are struggling with health issues, make up a significant proportion of the undocumented Irish living in the US.

Notoriously tricky

Establishing the number of Irish people in the United States without proper legal status is notoriously tricky. The figure of 50,000 has long been cited by Irish officials and international media outlets when discussing the challenge of illegal immigration in the United States.

Mr Deasy’s comments come amid a clampdown on immigration by the Trump administration. Last week, President Donald Trump announced plans to cut immigration in half by tightening up rules.

A new Bill, proposed by Republicans in the Senate, will prioritise those who have fluency in English, work skills and a higher level of educational attainment, rather than the current system, which favours immigrants who already have family members in the US.

On Monday the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, announced the city is filing a lawsuit against Mr Trump’s move to withhold public grants from so-called sanctuary cities – American cities that offer protection to undocumented migrants.

Mr Deasy said that while the latest move to clamp down on immigration by the US administration was a concern, he believes it will face difficulties getting through Congress. “What is concerning, however, is that it indicates that the Republican party is leaving comprehensive immigration reform behind.”

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent