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Irish Illegals Not A Special Case

Irish Times


November 16, 2007


By Trina Vargo


A small group of Irish-Americans is working to encourage the US Congress to carve out a special deal for illegal Irish immigrants, while leaving behind the millions of others in the same situation. They are wrong to single out one group for preferential treatment.

The US immigration system needs fixing, but it requires a comprehensive and united approach. The deportation of 12 million people is clearly not possible, and pragmatism favours efforts to create an earned path to citizenship for those in the US illegally. Sadly, that effort has been stalled.

But to support a special deal that would single out illegal Irish immigrants for preferential treatment would be morally wrong, could harm the US-Ireland relationship, damage the high regard in which Irish-Americans are held, and lead to a divisive debate in the US between the Hispanic community and the Irish-American community.

The Irish economy is strong, and a special deal is not justified on economic grounds. The majority of those attending the rallies for the illegal Irish immigrants are young people, people who came to the United States when jobs were plentiful at home.

These are not people who fled extreme economic hardship, political persecution, physical torture, or an undemocratic government. Jobs are so plentiful in Ireland that in recent years, Government officials have travelled to the US to urge the Irish to return home. It is to be celebrated that Ireland is now a country of wealth, prosperity and opportunity. Now one of the richest countries in the world, it is a not a place anyone has to leave.

Supporters of a special deal for the Irish say there is precedent, that this was done for Australia. What they neglect to point out is that those visas had nothing to do with illegal immigrants. They were about trade agreements and facilitating the movement of professionals to the US. They were temporary visas subject to stringent eligibility requirements. The visas were only available to those with specific professional skills and for specific jobs pursuant to trade agreements.

There is also talk of trying to mask a "special deal" by cloaking it in innocuous immigration provisions but this is just an attempt to, as they say on Wall Street, "put lipstick on that pig".

There are other ways for the Irish to come to the US. Those advocating a special deal for the Irish argue that the Irish don't qualify under most of the existing schemes. In fact, they do. The lobby for the illegal Irish immigrants complains that, in 2005, of 1.2 million people getting green cards the Irish got only 2,000. Yet Spain, with 10 times the population of Ireland, received fewer green cards. Portugal, with two and a half times the population, also received fewer green cards.

Ireland is a country of little more than four million people. Proportionate to population, the UK, Italy, Germany, and France all did less well than the Irish. And of Irish citizens who recently applied in Ireland for any kind of visa to the US, less than 3 per cent were refused.

The overall numbers of Irish coming to the US have decreased because fewer Irish wish to move here. It is difficult to know exactly how many illegal Irish immigrants are in the United States. Some have suggested between 20,000 and 60,000 but that's a guess and these calculations do not take into account the many thousands of Irish who have returned to Ireland in the last several years. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that the Irish sport of hurling is dying in the US because there are too few Irishmen to play it because "the strong Irish economy is keeping people from emigrating or drawing them back home". It noted that there were 128,000 Irish-born residents of the US in 2005, whereas there were 156,000 in 2000. In 1980, there had been about 290,000.

The success of the Irish economy is a good thing. It is understandable that most people prefer to live in their home countries. Those who came to the US during the Famine and even as late as the 1980s mainly did so out of economic necessity. The Irish economy experienced unprecedented levels of growth in recent years and the success of the Irish economy has benefited America as well. Ireland is now one of the largest foreign investors in the US. Irish companies are now in over 1,300 locations throughout the 50 US states employing 74,600. Ireland ranked fifth in a recent survey of real estate investors in the US. The relationship is indeed vibrant.

I fear, however, that if the future of the US-Ireland relationship rests on Irish immigration, the relationship will falter. Those who care about the relationship should note and expand upon the business and cultural ties, academic and student exchanges, as well as legal immigration. The constant flow of citizens between our two countries is a positive thing that should be nurtured. But given the success of the Irish economy, the future of the US- Ireland relationship will be based more on innovation, imagination, cultivation, and communication, than on immigration. This is to be embraced.

I am very aware of the incalculable contributions the Irish have made, and will continue to make, to America. I am fully supportive of legalising the Irish, but along with everyone else, not at the expense of anyone else. Many Irish remember that their ancestors who arrived in America in the 19th century were greeted with discrimination and were told "no Irish need apply".

It would be wrong for the Irish now to suggest that "no Mexican need apply".

Trina Vargo is the founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance

© 2007 The Irish Times