Thursday 27 October 2016

American dream could yet come true for illegal Irish

Gerard O'Regan

Published 13/06/2015 | 02:30

A tourist cruise passes by the Statue of Liberty in New York City
A tourist cruise passes by the Statue of Liberty in New York City

For anybody who has ever taken a boat journey approaching the mouth of New York harbour, the Statue of Liberty forging ever closer from a distance is a haunting and majestic sight. Giant-size when seen up close, it was a beacon of welcome and a signpost of hope for millions of emigrants when they arrived in what was known as the "New World''.

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Durable and defiant in its solidity, and holding aloft the famous torch, which signified for so many what is described as the American dream, it's impossible not to be affected by its powerful symbolism.

And as the waters lap around the shoreline of lower Manhatt​a​n, on nearby Ellis island lies the gaunt presence of some old buildings, which were once the pivotal point for entry to the US. By the time this complex closed in 1954, over 12 million people - all of whom hoped to become US citizens - had passed through its doors.

Today, over one third of the entire American population can trace their ancestry to somebody who made the fateful walk through the Ellis Island complex.​

And the story has been told many times, that the very first person to be assessed in the newly opened immigration control centre in 1892 was an Irishwoman, Annie Moore. She had ​departed ​from Cobh with her two brothers some 12 days earlier. For this country, and its epic story of the unrelenting outflow of our population, it was a harbinger of much that was to follow.

Wave after wave of people from this country would in the following years make their way through Ellis Island. I​n the background, the silhouette of that famous statue, forever framed against a New York skyline​, would remain embedded in their imagination.​

The buildings on ​the island​ ​now comprise ​a museum ​which is an astonishing place of memory. The hollow sound when walking on those old floorboards - trod by millions - is a reminder of one of the greatest mass movements in history​. That was when ​America​ allowed a never-ending stream of humanity to seek some form of solace on its shores.

It has been estimated that over 10 million people have emigrated from the island of Ireland since 1800. For many of those seeking a new future abroad, the United States was always the supreme destination. This was the land of the free, where the almighty dollar promised opportunities unrestrained for those who willing to strive, whatever the odds.

A few days ago, the thread linking the historic outflow from Ireland to the US was brought full circle by Barack Obama in his weekly television address. The president quoted the tribulations of a young Irish woman trying to achieve citizenship in America​ - despite having legal status - as an example of ​the ​intrinsic unfairness​ of the country's current immigration laws.​

For the estimated 50,000 "illegal'' Irish now in the US, and their families back at home, his words would have been listened to very carefully. There have been many stories of ​our ​ ​"undocumented''​ on the other side of the Atlantic​​, ​forced to live in a twilight world, ever fearful of being discovered and deported by the authorities. Yet the vast majority hold down a job, and many also are taxpayers married with children.

But ​a huge number are terrified ​that if they leave the US, for whatever reason, their cover will be blown, and they will not be allowed re-enter the country. T​his​ means ​attending ​family events such as funerals and weddings - or visiting a parent who may be seriously ill - is all too often judged to be too high a risk.

Obama, as he plays out the end days of his presidency, says he is determined to fix an immigration system which is "broken". He wants to give the so-called undocumented "a pathway to citizenship"​. Under the terms of the scheme they will have to pay a fine, pay their taxes, and be willing ​"to go to the back of the line​"​​ as regards achieving full legal status in the short term. But for many of the Irish over there, this would be a small price to pay. And the real incentive is that it would provide a clear pathway to full US citizenship.

People from this country comprise but a tiny blip in the​ estimated 12 million people currently working illegally in America. ​But there is consolation in that ​Obama is calling for acceptance regarding the reality of the problem.

"Lets be honest​,​ tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn't realistic. Anyone who says otherwise isn't being straight with you," he said.

His proposed scheme ​will​ not ​apply to anybody who has emigrated to the US "recently'' or to those who will succeed in entering illegally in the future. Neither will it guarantee​ full citizenship​, but it will remove the risk of deportation.

In trying to assuage his critics, Obama insists ​his proposals are ​not "an amnesty", arguing "it's a common sense, middle ground approach". ​Crucially from an Irish point of view, it is suggested some form of work permit would be allowed - this proposal could benefit many who left here in recent years following the downturn in the economy.

But major obstacles lie ahead and the right wing of the Republican party is vehemently opposed to easing any of the current immigration controls.

There is also a feeling that time is not on the side of Obama, given the amount of legal hassles his proposals have thrown up. Vested interest groups will almost certainly also set in train all sorts of delaying tactics.

It may be up to Hillary Clinton, broadly in sympathy with his views, and if she is elected to the White House, to finish the job

Meanwhile, there seems to be nowhere that the story of emigration is so woven into the DNA of folk memory, as is the case with Ireland. And whatever our economic fortunes in the future, there will always be an exodus of some sort​.

Down in Dingle this week, the tourists from far and wide are beginning to flock westward​. They mingled with some locals who had also temporarily returned from places far and near​. And among those out and about were some currently working in the US​.

​They knew they were taking a chance coming home on holidays - but were prepared to risk it. And then we all remembered Annie​ Moore back in 1862 and the story without end of the Irish who go away, come home, and so often go away again.

Irish Independent

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