Dripping a Paddy accent no longer enough for illegal Irish in US after Trump threats
If there's ever a tough time to be an expat, it's surely at Christmas. Whether you're munching turkey on Bondi Beach, hiking in the Hindu Kush or paragliding above Ko Samui, that old adage, 'the savage loves his native shore' applies with a vengeance this week.
For the 50,000 undocumented Irish in the US, this is shaping up as a particularly difficult Christmas in the strange new America of Donald Trump. The president-elect promised to take away US citizenship from the "anchor babies" of illegal alien parents, cut federal funding to the "sanctuary cities" where the undocumented are not reported to immigration, and enact mass deportations as part of his first term. Even if much of this rhetoric becomes diluted when he takes office on January 20, his comments fester like a ticking time-bomb amongst every Irish community across America.
Eileen, a maitre d' at a top Los Angeles restaurant for 14 years, said: "Some clients I've been dealing with for over a decade now ask me outright, 'Are you legal, because if you're not you shouldn't be here'. It's very direct and designed to rattle."
In bars, cafés and community centres where the Irish gather, immigration and deportation are topics dominating every conversation. "Coming home for Christmas is every illegal's dream, but not this year - I don't think anyone would dare take the chance," said Mike, a Queens-based plumber who has lived under the radar for 17 years. "You always worry anyway, but now that's ramped up more than ever."
Life as an Irish illegal was very different a few decades ago, when this writer partook of that essential rite of passage known as 'summer in New York'. Four months became four years, and never once any thought of deportation - that was a fate reserved for Mexicans, Chinese and Central Americans. Being an Irish illegal back then was membership of a thriving community of rebels and bohemians - and with stories to match. Like the lads in that Carlsberg advert who enchant the foreigners with their high-infants Irish - "ciúnas bóthar cailín bainne", dripping a Paddy accent was usually a platinum card to the head of the queue.
"Are you, like, a freedom fighter?" was a question breathed in one's ear occasionally. "Please, I can't talk about those times," went the standard reply, as your anguished eyes looked deep into hers.
My only brush with the law was riding a scooter on the pavement in Greenwich Village. Stupid move: police car pulls over and suddenly I'm marking time on a hard bench at the 6th precinct on West 10th Street. All very 'Law & Order' or 'NYPD Blue' stuff. Four hours later, a grizzled desk sergeant asks for my ID. I don't have any. He stares hard, and finally says: "What would your mother think if she saw you acting so stupid so far from home." "Not much," I reply. "Get outta here, son, and stay clean," is his final word. Getting up, I notice his name badge - O'Shaughnessy. That was what being Irish used to mean in America. Not anymore.
According to the US Census Bureau, of 10.47 million people who received green cards between 2003 and 2012, just 0.2pc were Irish. It's a percentage unlikely to rise during the new administration's tenure. And yet, while Donald Trump might label illegals as "rapists and criminals", every alien I ever met was law-abiding to the point of obsession. "You'd need to be unbelievably stupid to drive drunk or get in even the slightest argument on a night out," said James, a bartender on Wall Street. "When you're illegal, even a parking ticket is a cause for worry, and I wouldn't break the speed limit if I was bleeding from the ears. The illegal is the guy who drives his buddies home from the bar, who works any Sunday his boss wants, and who's never late with the rent."
At the base of the Statue of Liberty, a bronze plaque is engraved with the words of poet Emma Lazarus from 1883.
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."
The Irish, more than most, took these words to heart as they landed on the shores of the New World, knowing they would never go back. And 200 years on, another generation grapples with a similar challenge, an uncertain future in the shadows of a changed world.