'I would prefer to be broke and miserable in New York rather than back in Ireland'
Illegal immigrants are nothing new in the USA. Donal Lynch talks to two who fled the Irish dole queue
THE floor of the cramped studio apartment in Astoria in the New York suburb of Queens is littered with clothes and empty food cartons.
On the wall is a large poster of the Dublin football team and a Tricolour is draped over the tiny balcony. The place isn't much to look at, but, for two friends, even finding this represents a small triumph in a year of adversity. Mark, 29, and Colm, 31, both from Dublin, arrived in New York illegally this time last year and have been trying to make a living ever since.
They fled the lengthening dole queues -- Mark lost his job with a recruitment company, Colm was let go from his sales position at a hotel -- and decided that like their aunts and uncles before them they would try to ride out the recession at home by coming to the USA.
"What we didn't really realise is that it would be very hard to find work without a visa," Mark says. "We weren't able to get a driver's licence or a social security number. You can't claim anything here either and you have to be wary of the cops because you're illegal. Eventually we were able to get shifts at a local bar but it's been a hard slog. It takes the two of us working to pay for this little place."
According to Paul Finnegan, director of the New York Irish Centre, their story is sadly typical. "We don't have exact figures but, anecdotally, I would say there has been a noticeable increase in people coming over since the recession began. When I speak to people who are thinking of coming over I am hearing the tone of the 1980s all over again -- people do seem to be eager to leave. It's a big step, however, and unfortunately they're not all prepared in the same way. You have the savvy person who researches the possibilities and finds a job before they come over, and then you have people who come over on spec and expect to be sorted out with a job."
Like many of the Irish centres in the US -- which are partially funded by the Irish taxpayer -- the centres in New York are dealing with enquiries from recent Irish immigrants, many of them highly skilled, on a daily basis.
"We try to help them out as best we can and we refer them to various other agencies who can help also," says Finnegan. "But sometimes there is only so much that can be done."
For most Irish people, there are only three ways to obtain a work visa for the US. The first is to have the good luck to win a Green Card in the visa lottery, which is held each year (the form is available online at the American Embassy's website). The second is to find an employer who is willing to sponsor you for a visa -- no easy task in the current economic climate stateside. The third is to marry a US citizen -- and despite official surveillance, illegal visa marriages still take place in New York, where the visa recipient can expect to pay up to $20,000 for the privilege.
Recently a new reciprocal visa arrangement between Ireland and the US was made law, so students in full-time study or those who have graduated within the past 12 months may apply to work for a year in a field of work connected to their studies.
Many Irish people have a memory of older relatives simply arriving illegally and finding a job but, according to Siobhan Lyons, of the Irish Centre in Philadelphia, that has become much more difficult in the intervening years. "People used to be able to slip through the cracks but that's harder now. The Immigration Act of 1996 sealed everything much more tightly and then post 9/11 everything became much tighter again. You have to prove your immigration status just to get a driver's licence in Pennsylvania and the state has also signed up to the Secure Communities Programme under which the police are authorised to hold you and report your illegal status if they find that to be the case."
In the boom years in Ireland, many immigrants decided to come home but those who made that decision in the past two years found an uncertain future awaiting them. Orla Kelleher, of the Aisling Irish Centre in New York, heard one case recently of a man who had returned home with his family after years in the States. "They had put all of their money into a beautiful house in Ireland but when they got back in 2008 they found that the promised job wasn't there. He had no work and there was no money saved to keep the family going. He had to come back out here to the US and is now working here to send money home to the family in Ireland."
The message all of the Irish centres give is not to come to the US illegally. The sectors in which people could traditionally find some illegal work -- construction and hospitality are still depressed there. The glimmer of hope on the horizon is immigration reform, which would make the thousands of undocumented Irish immigrants legal.
"However, the progress of that could depend on the economy generally improving" says Lena Deevy, of the Irish Immigration Centre in Boston. "As long as the US economy remains depressed there will probably be anti-immigrant feeling and that makes it difficult for reform. There are signs that the economy is improving, however."
"I don't know how much longer we will last out here," Mark from Dublin says when asked to ponder his future in New York. "At least at home there is the safety net of the dole -- we have to earn every penny here.
"On the other hand, it is exciting to be away from home and people are more positive here. Sometimes I think to myself that if I am going to be broke and miserable, I'd prefer to be broke and miserable here, rather than back in Dublin."