It’s a recent Friday in Terminal Four at JFK Airport in New York, and the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin has just landed as passengers make their way to the baggage carousel to collect their luggage.
Some people are coming back from vacation, and more are visiting friends and family. Others wait eagerly for their belongings, a suitcase and a pocket full of dreams, a few choice possessions to help them build a new life and a fresh start here in the U.S.
This is the current reality for the countless numbers of Irish emigrants who are arriving in the U.S. each day. With declining job opportunities and rising unemployment in Ireland, many people are voting with their feet and making that familiar journey across the Atlantic. It’s a path the Irish have worn for centuries.
With emigration levels now mirroring the 1980s, 1,000 people a week are now leaving Irish shores according to Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in Ireland.
For over a decade flights from Ireland were packed with eager shoppers desperate to grab some New York bargains. While the shoppers still exist, now many others who make the journey here do so to start to new life.
James O’Malley, an Irish immigration attorney based in New York, has noticed the uptick in new arrivals.
“There were a few years when the majority of Irish people seemed to be on vacation and shopping trips, just here for a few days or a long weekend,” O’Malley told the Irish Voice.
“My office is downtown near the super stores, Century 21 and J&R, and you would see and recognize Irish people all the time with huge bags of purchases. You would know that they were just here for the shopping or heading to see the Ground Zero site nearby.
“That has changed dramatically in the last year or so and we are now seeing people from Ireland coming here with much longer term plans.”
O’Malley, who has been handling immigration cases in New York for more than two decades, says that a wide range of Irish people are making the decision to come to the U.S.
“I would say a fair cross section of Irish society, from young singles to married couples, many with children, to professionals such as accountants, nurses, teachers, qualified trades people,” are seeking immigration advice, he said.
Dissimilar from the 1980s, those who are arriving in the U.S. are a lot more informed about what to expect.
“Back in the 1980s people, most of whom were young singles, seemed to just wing it and get on a flight to New York or Boston and see what happened. There was a casualness back then that is not evident now. I guess the Internet has made the supply of information, and the demand for information a main topic,” O’Malley said.
“People now want to know as much as possible before they emigrate. This is good because the process of making such a big decision has never been easy, especially now,” he added.
One worrying trend that O’Malley has noticed is the amount of Irish who returned to Ireland during the boom times, who now have few options to come back to the U.S.
“A very troubling pattern that I see more and more is that people that I helped back in the 1980s and 1990s, who eventually returned to Ireland in the good years of the Celtic Tiger economy, are now contacting me again with a view to coming back to the U.S.,” he said.
“Many of these people would have had established themselves legally and financially in the U.S. when the economy was good here in the 1990s and the visa laws were less restrictive but gave up their life here to return to a booming Ireland,” said O’Malley.
Many Irish people decided to return to Ireland to build their dream home and live among their family and friends after years of living abroad. But the ailing economy means their quality of life has dramatically changed.
“It's depressing really to hear some of the stories, dreams dashed, careers and jobs gone, savings spent in a high flying economy,” O’Malley reflected.
Despite strict visa regulations and limited green card availability, the appeal of New York and the U.S. remains strong for Irish emigrants in search of a new life.
“Not a day goes by without a phone call or an email or often a slew of emails asking for advice on any range of subjects related to coming to the U.S. to live and work,” O’Malley said.
Jackie Kennedy’s granddaughter has uncannily similar looks