It was five years ago this week that the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform hosted a huge rally on Capitol Hill to fight for legalization, but little has changed for the thousands of Irish who attended in the hopes of securing their futures. APRIL DREW speaks to some of the participants about their disappointment.
St. Patrick’s week of 2006 was one that brought hope and possibility to an estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish living in the shadows in the U.S.
Nearly 3,000 of those undocumented descended upon the country’s capital in the hope of influencing lawmakers to make the right decision about their future.
A monster rally organized by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) took place on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. The Irish wanted their voices heard.
They were sick of hiding in the shadows and wanted to let Congress know that the time had come to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill so they could live legally in the country that had quickly become their home.
With the sun splitting high in the sky a sea of green shirts could be seen from miles around.
mmigrants came from New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, and some even traveled from San Francisco.
Dozens of small groups were formed, and every single representative and senator on Capitol Hill received a visit from Irish immigrants that day.
Their message was clear -- this country was built by their forefathers, and they hoped more than anything that those in charge in Washington, D.C. would see them right.
At the time the Kennedy/McCain comprehensive immigration reform bill was on the table. Both Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy, along with New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, spoke at the ILIR rally about the real possibility of legislation being passed that year that would ensure Irish immigrants a legal path to citizenship.
There were a lot of empty promises dished out by politicians that day. Hundreds of Irish came back from the trip that evening fully confident that within a year or two their life would take a positive turn.
“I really thought that I’d have my green card shortly after that day in Washington,” said a young man who asked for his name to be withheld.
All those interviewed for this article have been given alias names because they are still undocumented, and still hoping for reform in the U.S.
Liam, 33, from Northern Ireland, was one of the early risers that day five years ago.
“I’m not one for going to these things but I thought it was important that I try and have some say regarding my future in this country,” Liam told the Irish Voice over the phone last week.
Back in 2006 Liam has already spent four years in New York working in the construction industry.
“I really wanted to stay in America and do everything the proper way,” he said.
At the time of the rally in Washington Liam had been working under a friend’s Social Security number, but has since gone off the books and now works for cash.
“It’s backwards things have gone, but I have no intention of going back to Ireland,” he added.
Liam now has a child with his girlfriend and plans to remain in the U.S. long-term.
“I want my son to grow up here in New York with all the opportunities that I didn’t have when I was a child back home.”
Michelle and her husband Peter have been living in New York for nearly nine years. They don’t have any children but plan to start a family soon.
“To be honest we really wanted to hold off having a family until we got papers. Being illegal isn’t the ideal scenario while bringing a baby into the world, but at this stage we can’t put it off any longer,” Michelle candidly told the Irish Voice.
Although Michelle was unable to attend the Washington rally five years ago her husband (her fiancé at the time) went on their behalf.
“He came back pumped. He had me convinced that we would be getting green cards. I nearly thought they’d be coming in the post the next week,” Michelle laughed while remembering back.
The couple, both from the west of Ireland, did “seriously contemplate” going back home.
“Every year we made plans to move home and then we’d change our minds and stay an extra year, and sure then the recession hit Ireland and that put an end to any more talk of heading back home,” said Michelle honestly.
The couple hope that “some sort of legislation will eventually be passed” so they can be put on a path to American citizenship.
“We’re here now for the long haul, we’ve made our home here, our friends are here and New York is for us,” she said.
“I guess we’ve become Americanized without even realizing it.”
Bernie, in her early forties, recalls only too well the day in Washington.
“It was an fantastic day for the Irish. Having the likes of Hillary Clinton and, God rest his soul, Ted Kennedy on our side making us promises that I was sure would carry weight in the Senate was heartwarming,” said Bernie.
“I was only here illegally a few months. I had a visa for a few years but it ran out so instead of going back to my life in Ireland I decided to stay. I really and truly thought in my heart of hearts that we would be getting some sort of visa shortly after that visit to Washington,” Bernie said.
Bernie, who works in an office in Yonkers, is having a hard time being undocumented.
“I have been home once in the last five years and that’s it,” she said.
“I’m missing so much, but even now if I wanted to return I couldn’t. There are no jobs available so what would I do?”
Bernie still holds out hope of some sort of legislation in the coming years.
“I’ve a good feeling that Obama will come good in the end and get something passed in the next few years, maybe before I’m 50,” she laughed.
An Irish family from the south of the country is moving back across the Atlantic despite the recession.
The O’Connors have four kids and want them to have their family around as they grow up.
Niamh, who was also in Washington in 2006, told the Irish Voice that her youngest is about to start school in September, and a decision was made at Christmas to move back to Ireland.
“We can’t do it anymore,” said Niamh.
“We’ve been here for nearly 10 years and it’s just not on anymore. All the kids’ cousins are at home in Ireland as are their grandparents, so enough is enough.”
The O’Connors have “enough saved for a years worth of living expenses” and hope by this time next year to be set up at home.
“All we are hearing from everyone is that we are mad to be going back to Ireland, but as I say to them, try living in our shoes. We don’t have driver’s licenses, it’s getting harder and harder to get a job that is off the books because I don’t have a Social Security number, and the children are getting to the age where they want to know their cousins so we are fully committed to our decision,” added Niamh.
Since the failure of the proposed comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2006 several of those who attended the ILIR rally in Washington, D.C. have left the U.S. Most have gone back to Ireland and some have gone to other countries where they were able to obtain a visa.
Most of those who left did so just before the bottom fell out of Ireland’s economy. Some have even returned to the U.S.
A returned couple, who are once again undocumented, declined to speak to the Irish Voice but said that although their heart is in Ireland, financially they had to come back so they could pay their hefty mortgage back home.
For a Co. Dublin couple living in New York for years, being undocumented wasn’t an option anymore. They had done it for eight years, and when it became clear that there was little hope of any resolution for their situation they moved back to Ireland and subsequently immigrated to Australia.
Samantha and Liam Melia spoke to the Irish Voice via Facebook.
The Melias were very active in ILIR and involved in organizing the Washington, D.C. rally.
“Leaving the U.S. after all that time and effort with ILIR was not an easy decision as a lot of risk was involved in what we did, but the truth is my biggest motivation factor was my age,” said 35-year-old Samantha, who left the U.S. three years ago.
“I simply felt that the way things were moving in Washington I would be expected to wait at least another two maybe three years. For me the sands of time on my life were running out and I was in the waiting place a long, long time so I held my breath and jumped.”
Samantha and Liam spent a year in Ireland before immigrating to Australia. Three weeks into their new life tragedy struck.
“Three weeks after moving to Australia my father died tragically at the young age 58. I was devastated,” recalls Samantha.
“I jumped on a plane home. I had the freedom to do that because I had a visa, I had the choice. Obviously this experience is greatly tied in to why I have no regrets about leaving America.”
Seeing how wonderful her life is now, Samantha feels the U.S. should shadow Australia’s visa giving.
“If the U.S. had the same immigration policy as Australia this issue would not exist for the Irish. When you apply here you are means tested, must be English speaking, have employer sponsorship, be a skilled laborer, be a certain age and have relatives in the country – all this earns you points for a visa,” she said.
“America needs to update its immigration policy, and the Irish government needs to man up and actively pursue a Irish immigration policy with the U.S., especially now.”