by JOHN LAUINGER
March 6, 2006
America has long been a haven for Irish immigrants. When the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s changed the face of the Emerald Isle, hundreds of thousands of starving Irish sought a new start in America.
When America prospered in the 1990s, hordes of Irish crossed the Atlantic - some with papers, but many without - to improve their fortunes or find their fate.
But today, with the Irish economy the envy of Europe, and the United States cracking down on illegal immigration like never before, the situation is different - both for Irish who want to come to America and those already stateside.
Perhaps the most significant change is that Irish no longer have to leave the Old Sod out of economic necessity.
"The economy in Ireland is known as the Celtic Tiger because, for the last 10 years, it has been the most buoyant economy in Europe," said Debbie McGoldrick, senior editor of the Irish Voice newspaper.
Since Ireland is at full employment, McGoldrick said, Irish no longer face a sense of urgency to immigrate to America or anywhere else. "Immigration is something they don't have to do as they used to," she said.
For Irish who want to immigrate to America, getting a green card has been a tall order since 1965. In that year, McGoldrick and other experts said, the federal government abolished its regional quota system for issuing visas - a change that lumped Ireland in with the rest of the world and forced Irish-visa seekers to compete with the countless would-be immigrants in more populous nations.
"The lottery system does not favor the Irish," said Monsignor James Kelly of St. Brigid's Church of Ridgewood, Queens, who is also a lawyer and the coordinator of the Irish Apostolate in Brooklyn.
As for the Irish already in America, some have recently begun returning to the Emerald Isle. This reverse migration can be explained, in part, by the emergence of the Celtic Tiger, experts say. The Irish who go home are going home to jobs, McGoldrick said.
But the bigger picture reveals a post-9/11 America that is cracking down on illegal immigration and making it extremely challenging for undocumented Irish to earn a living and raise their families.
"Since 9/11, the walls have really closed down," said McGoldrick.
Many undocumented Irish have been forced to pack their bags and leave New York in light of the state's newly beefed-up procedures governing driver's license issuance and renewal, which now require a valid social security number.
"The driver's license thing is killing them," Kelly said of undocumented Irish (and other immigrants, for that matter), particularly construction workers and others who rely on their cars to make money.
In Queens, Kelly said, one can sense the shift in the Irish population by looking at the Irish pubs in heavily Irish neighborhoods like Woodside. "The Irish bars in Woodside are not throbbing with life like they once were," he said.
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