Ten years ago, Paddy, a 32-year-old Irishman, arrived in the US on a 90-day tourist visa. He still hasn’t left.
The undocumented construction worker said he’s had no trouble finding work in New York – and he’s not alone.
“The tradition is there,” said Paddy, who declined to give his last name. “All my friends work off the books.”
Irish immigrants have been streaming into New York City for decades through legal and illegal channels. But with immigration vaulting into the spotlight as one of the most contentious issues of the 2012 presidential race, there is renewed focus on groups like the city’s undocumented laborers. In a series of interviews, several said it’s far easier for them to work illegally in New York City than other nationalities.
“Irish guys tend to do better,” said Paddy, who recently became project manager for an electrical contractor.
Another undocumented worker from Ireland said he has landed a job without having to prove he has a visa.
“You can earn a nice little wage and live here no bother,” said Sean, 25, another undocumented construction worker who asked to be identified by first name only. “In a place like New York, if you tried to get all the illegals out, the city would hit a standstill. It’s not like we’re unusual or the only undocumented group.”
James O’Malley, an immigration lawyer from Ireland and the head of the Manhattan-based O’Malley and Associates firm, said that Irish workers had grown accustomed to coming to the U.S. since the launch of the Donnelly-Morrison Green Card Lottery program in the late 1980s. This piece of legislation enabled more Irish to obtain U.S. visas, and it adhered to U.S. immigration principles of the 1960s, which focused on family-ties rather than country-based quotas.
“Immigration quotas were fixed politically between 1989 and 1996,” said O’Malley. “But even now with relative immigration decline, the IRS, Department of Labor, and Immigrations Services lack the interest, time or politics to enforce rigorous measures against illegals.”
According to O’Malley, fewer Irish laborers have come to the U.S. since the demise of the country’s “Celtic Tiger” boom. Nonetheless, overall emigration from Ireland in the first half of 2011 was up 12 percent compared to the previous year. Figures published in early September by the Central Statistics Office, Ireland’s census bureau, revealed an increase of 11,1000 Irish nationals leaving the country. So far, that’s 110 Irish nationals a day.
George, 26, an Irish musician living in Queens, said that most of the Irish he knew worked in construction, with 80 percent of them “off the books.”
In Queens, a key Irish community stronghold, Irish laborers accounted for almost 65,000 of the one-million-member workforce, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. In other words, legal Irish immigrants comprise 15 percent of the labor force.
In 2006, the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) estimated that there were 50,000 illegal Irish workers in the U.S. ILIR testified that Ireland received 160 Diversity Visas out of a global total of 50,000 and approximately 2,000 Green Cards from a global total of 1 million.
Sean dismissed the notion that the history of Irish-American labor and emigration Relations account for the unique standing of Irish workers.
“It boils down to skin color. Only Irish workers get the same as Americans,” said Sean. “You’ll never see a Mexican being drunk and disorderly in public. They’re careful because they know they can be deported anytime. An Irishman walking into a construction job, even now with the recession, will get a higher hourly wage higher than other non-white employees who’ve been there for a while.”
Sean acknowledged that the recession impacted upon the illegal as well as the legal workforce, especially during the slow season of winter, when contractors give preference to legal or unionized laborers.
“It’s not the same since 2008, but there’s plenty of construction work out there for us,” Sean added.“There’s hundreds of Irish-owned construction companies.”
Sean recounted a saying from one of his former roommates: “You could just go on the piss Sunday, and get a new job Monday, no bother.”
The Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Queens doesn't typically process work-related requests, but the center's lawyer, John Stahl, pointed out that undocumented workers have equal employment rights.
“If you do a day’s work in this country, you’re entitled to get paid. It’s not an immigration issue, it’s a work issue,” Stahl said.
Under the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding between the Departments of Homeland Security and Department of Labor (DOL), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) must refrain from engaging in enforcement activities at a worksite subject to a DOL investigation. Moreover, the report specifies that ICE can only intervene in cases concerning “a federal crime other than a violation relating to unauthorized employment.”
“The city would come to a standstill if government enforced deportations or ICE investigations rigorously,” said O’Malley. “A person can also claim sanction under the 1996 Cancellation of Deportation law, if they’ve been in the U.S. for 10 years and have at least one immediate family member who’s American”.
Paul, 32, who lives with Sean, also came to New York a decade ago on a holiday visa. Paul said that he originally started working for an Irishman who owned his own construction business, which he later merged with a big Manhattan-based contractor.
“I’ve been here for almost 11 years,” said Paul, “and no-one in my situation that’s in my circle, or my friend’s circle, has been targeted.”
Paul, who works as a carpenter, estimated that he gets paid $25-30 an hour. Large construction companies, which generate approximately $150 million a year, negotiate wages with relevant unions.
The General Contractors Association of New York oversees 13 different trade-specific construction unions, and fixes hourly wages between $30-60, dependent on the worker’s skill level. Unionized carpenters typically make $40-45 an hour without benefits. With union membership fees taken into account, Paul earns slightly less in real terms than his documented counterparts.
On a recent day, several Irishmen watching a Gaelic football match in the Cuckoos Nest pub in Queens openly admitted to being undocumented.
“It’s the kind of thing you leave people alone with,” said George, Sean’s 26-year-old friend from Dublin
“They like us, so they tolerate us. And we try to avoid rocking the boat. It has a lot to do with people in the right places turning a blind eye.”
Despite the seemingly easy task of getting work, and the insular, protective nature of the Irish community, Sean predicted that he wouldn’t stay in New York for long.
“I don’t think making more money than other undocumented groups makes us successful,” said Sean.
“We’ve no representation and I’ve yet to meet an Irishman who’s not in construction or bar work. And it’s unfortunate how a lot of Irish in these communities like Queens still only eat Kerrygold butter.”