Say the words "illegal alien," and most New Yorkers think of a cleaning woman from Mexico or a cab driver from Mali. Generally, they don't think of a nanny from Mayo or a bartender from Monaghan.
But illegal immigration from Ireland continues though much diminished from the 1970s and '80s, when thousands arrived, re-populating onetime Irish neighborhoods in Queens and the Bronx. After years of living illegally, many of those immigrants got their green cards, courtesy of the Donnelly visas (1987) and the Morrison visas (1990), which together provided some 62,000 Irish-born people with papers.
Those numbers still left many without legal protection. Add in a later wavelet of immigration that arrived here despite the 1990s boom in the Irish economy, and "there are now between 25,000 and 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in the country, with the number probably closer to 50,000" says Siobhan Dennehy, executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center.
Estimates of the numbers in New York City hover around the 20,000 mark, although, as Dennehy says, it's almost impossible to calculate precisely how many there are. One thing seems sure, though: As the Irish economy continues to soften, the numbers will continue to rise.
That's where the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform comes in. Founded in 2005 by Niall O'Dowd, publisher of 'The Irish Voice,' and Ciaran Staunton, owner of a midtown restaurant called O'Neill's, it aims, as its slogan says, to "Legalize the Irish" by supporting immigration reform.
"We in the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform want to put a human face to those who are undocumented," says Staunton. "The issue of the undocumented affects every community across the country, whether you come from Galway or Guatemala. "
"A lot of people are surprised that the Irish are involved in this issue, but we actually have a very significant undocumented population in proportion to the legal Irish-born population," O'Dowd has said. "The current immigration system is dysfunctional -- it just gets worse and worse. Since John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are all very good on the issue, I would think that no matter who the next president is, they'll come out for reform pretty quickly."
Staunton and O'Dowd believe a pragmatic approach is the key to getting immigration reform. They are, after all, seasoned political operators, having worked the system successfully, first lobbying for a visa for controversial Irish politician Gerry Adams, and then prodding then- President Bill Clinton into supporting the Northern Ireland Peace Process. As to what they might support in the way of legislation, Staunton says his group wants reforms that would legalize all undocumented immigrants and allow low-skilled workers to come to the United States.
Further, he says, he has no problem with the notion of requiring immigrants to go back to their home countries to undergo interviews, background and criminal checks. As he points out, that was the system under which the Morrison visas were issued.
"What we want is a path to legal immigration." he says. "Most people realize you can't take seven or eight million people and put them on planes and send them back to countries around the globe. People are here," he says. "Deal with it."