Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A forgotten face of immigration reform

Contrary to the vitriolic rhetoric that comes from anti-immigration proponents like Tom Tancredo, Lou Dobbs and Pat Buchanan, about half of the nations undocumented immigrants don't arrive under the cover night, smuggled over a porous Mexican border by unsavory characters profiting from the trade in human cargo. They enter the country through legal channels with visas in hand to work, study or visit. After time, they fall out of status and join the growing ranks of the undocumented. They do so not out of malicious intent, but rather because there are no legal channels available for them to change their status and make a new more permanent life in a country they now want to call their own.

The other popular misconception perpetuated by the anti-immigration right is that immigration reform centers almost exclusively on poor, unskilled, uneducated immigrants from Mexico and Central America. But in reality the face of immigration reform is diverse, and the issue affects many immigrant groups whose voice is often drowned out by the din of xenophobic rhetoric coming from those who oppose true reform.

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While the majority of the nations 11 to 12 million undocumented do come from Mexico and Central America, roughly one quarter come from countries outside Latin America, such as Russia, Poland, Canada, Haiti, Korea, India, China and the Philippines. Many of theses three million non-Hispanic undocumented immigrants have skills and higher educations that are much needed in today's new economy, yet for most Americans they are a forgotten face in the immigration debate. A face intentionally left out of the conversation by the anti-immigration right because they don't fit neatly into the carefully crafted stereotypes that demonize the undocumented and play on ignorance and bigotry to further an exclusionary agenda.

One group that has tried to avoid relegation to the periphery of the debate is the 40,000 to 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants presently living and working in the US. They have taken an active role through groups like the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform to advocate in Washington on behalf of comprehensive immigration reform and marched in the massive demonstrations throughout the country last spring. Yet like so many other immigrant groups, their story often gets omitted when immigration reform is debated.

"We've had some very surprised reactions when they hear it is an issue for the Irish," said Celine Kennelly, executive director for the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center in San Francisco, an advice and referral service sponsored by the Irish Catholic Conference of Bishops.

"They are in as dire straits as any other ethnic group," said Kennelly, who estimates there are 3,000 to 4,000 Irish illegal immigrants in San Francisco, most working in construction, in restaurants or as nannies and caretakers for the elderly. "They cannot get driver's licenses, it's harder to open bank accounts, they cannot travel home and return again. ... The relationship between Ireland and America is so long and fantastic, but it's in danger now."

More than 250,000 Irish immigrants reside in the United States, according to the census, and most of them are here legally. But in recent decades, most arrivals from Ireland have overstayed their visas and become illegal immigrants, said Kennelly, because the government is issuing fewer work visas. A 1991 program offered legal permanent residence to about 16,000 undocumented Irish, but there has been no legalization plan since then.

San Francisco Chronicle

According to Marianna Corvan, also of the Pastoral Center and an organizer for the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, one of the biggest problems facing Irish immigrants is the limited number of work visas issued each year. She arrived 18 months ago on a J-1 visa to work with an immigration law firm in San Francisco as part of her studies in international human rights law. When that visa was set to expire she was able to obtain an H1b work visa with her employer's sponsorship so she could remain on. According to Corvan, "I was just lucky to get the application in on time, there are only 65,000 H1b visas available each year, this year they ran out in a record time…six weeks"

But for many Irish immigrants the chances of obtaining a work visa are slim. "A lot of them came from Ireland with degrees but they can't get any legal path… to get a social security number to get a real job" said Corvan, "so they're forced into babysitting or working in bars."

This lack of work visas coupled with the limited number of green cards issued each year to Irish immigrants (only 2088 out of 1,122,373 issued worldwide in 2005), has led to a situation where many Irish immigrants are starting to return to Ireland out of sheer frustration.

Martin is going home to Ireland for Christmas, and it’s not just for the holidays. He isn’t coming back.
Martin, 29, an illegal Irish immigrant who has been here for seven years, has had enough. He came to America looking for a better life, but has not been able to obtain legal status in this country. He will soon join the growing trend of Irish immigrants moving back to Ireland, where they can reap the benefits of a booming economy and legal citizenship.

“I’ve had enough of being a subject here. I have to find a life somewhere,” said Martin, who requested his last name be withheld.

Statistics show Martin is one of many Irish immigrants who are opting to return home as a result of the current immigration situation in the United States and the burgeoning economic state back home. According to Ireland’s Department of Social and Family Affairs, 132,000 Irish have returned since 2001, with more than 61,000 returning between 2002 and 2004.
Queens Chronicle

Another factor that has led to this exodus of Irish immigrants is the inability to return home for family emergencies or celebrations. Like all other immigrant groups, increased enforcement has made them virtual prisoners of the immigration system.

Those who return home know they risk never being able to return. Cathal Kennedy, a 22 year old carpenter, said some Irish immigrants won’t even go home for a wedding or funeral for fear they’ll have difficulty re entering the country or will be denied the opportunity to enter at all. “If people could come and go as they please, not as many people would go home,” Kennedy added.
Queens Chronicle

Corvan sees the situation as one that could essentially bring an end to the long standing relationship between the Untied States and Ireland and effectively put an end to an immigrant community that has been an important part of the nation since its inception. "A lot of people just aren’t coming here anymore because there just isn’t a legal channel for them to do so." said Covan "In my opinion unless there is some type of comprehensive immigration reform legislation passed, the Irish community in the United States is going to be no more"

The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform is planning to take part in a national lobbying day in January 2007 in Washington DC to lobby the new congress to take up comprehensive immigration reform. For information see:The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform

Marianna Corvan will be featured in a new documentary from San Francisco's KQED titled: "Immigrant Voices - American Stories". The half hour documentary is part of KQED's "Immigration in Focus", a year long multimedia collection of programs, special reports and events about the issue of immigration. The documentary will air on November 24th at 7:30PM. It will also be available for viewing at www.kqed.org/immigrationinfocus


Anonymous said...

You are totally right..I am from South America and a lot of people from there with college degrees are working here undocumented. Is almost impossible to get a work visa, even if you have college education. Where I come from there's no jobs,and no opportunities and migrating even illegaly is better than stay.

Robert A. Kraft said...

Excellent post. Thank you for opening our eyes to the "other side" of the immigration debate. Too many people come into this discussion with their minds firmly made up, with no intention of listening to the facts.

Bob Kraft, attorney

Kevin Tumey said...

When so many Irish are violating the terms of their visas, it makes it hard for the US government to issue future visas to the Irish because their compliance record is so poor.
It's not as if the US needs people. With a population of 300 million and growing, we are the 3rd most populous nation on the planet. We may have a shortage of open space, clean air and water, low-income housing, affordability healthcare, arable farmland, etc, but none can say we have a shortage of people.

sean said...

Legalize the Irish!