For Irish Illegally In U.S., A Life Locked In Place, Hoping For Change

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Gerry is a 40-year-old bricklayer who lives in a suburb of Chicago. He doesn't want his last name used because he snuck into the country 21 years ago across the Canadian border with a fake driver's license and stayed. Now he's married with 5-year-old son. He owns a small masonry business with six employees. One is a Mexican man who's also in Chicago illegally.

Do you feel a kinship with the undocumented Mexican worker on your crew?

GERRY: Yeah. He's got family, and he's worried about his family. He's traveling from - into the city to the job, and he's probably worse off than me because he probably doesn't have a license.

BURNETT: Gerry is muscular from hauling bricks all day and coaching soccer at night. He wears a gold ring in one ear. He's sitting outside of a sandwich shop beside a busy street. Chicago has been good to him. He owns a house and a company. He's taken his wife on vacation to Las Vegas and New Orleans. If he'd stayed in County Tipperary, Ireland, he probably would've taken over his parents' milk delivery business. Gerry says he's speaking out because he wants people to know that the immigration system in this country is so broken it affects him and his Mexican employee alike. Gerry may feel more accepted and less of a target because he's Irish, but when he talks about his life in America, he sounds like many Latin American immigrants.

GERRY: I want them to see that we're hardworking people. And we're here to make a living, not to take anybody's jobs.

BURNETT: Gerry does not live in the shadows. Chicago is a sanctuary city. He knows if he gets stopped, the police are not supposed to share his information with immigration authorities.

GERRY: In Chicago, if you obey the law, you'll be fine.

BURNETT: But like other immigrants who don't have papers to be here, he says he has to stay out of trouble.

GERRY: Saturday night, I went to a party, maybe an hour from here. I drove out, a couple of my friends came with me, never touched a drop until I came back closer to home, parked my car, went into the bar and had a few drinks and then got a taxi home.

BURNETT: Gerry is one of an estimated 50,000 Irish who are not authorized to be in this country, according to the Irish Embassy in Washington. Most of them are visa over-stayers, and most live in the large Irish populations of New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. There are some 33 million Americans of Irish descent, the second most Euro-Americans behind German-Americans. The U.S. and Ireland boast of a special relationship. Every St. Patrick's Day, the White House even dyes the fountain on the South Lawn green. Whether that special friendship influences immigration removals is hard to say. Last year, nearly 177,000 Mexicans were deported. Thirty-three Irish were sent home.

ANNE ANDERSON: The number of deportations is relatively small. I think it's probably accurate to say that they don't fit the profile that people consider for the undocumented.

BURNETT: Anne Anderson is the Irish ambassador in Washington. She says, despite the relatively small numbers, the undocumented Irish in America are significant for a small country like Ireland, with only four and a half million people. The embassy and prominent Irish-Americans periodically urge the U.S. government to push ahead with immigration reform. She says it would benefit the entire unauthorized population, not just Latinos, who get most of the attention.

ANDERSON: We want people to understand that this is a multifaceted problem. It's an issue that also wears an Irish face.

BURNETT: Like all foreign nationals living in the U.S. illegally, Gerry faces locked-in syndrome. He cannot leave the country because he'll be denied re-entry. He hasn't been back to the Emerald Isle in 16 years. When his grandfather, a greyhound trainer, died three years ago, Gerry attended the wake from Chicago, virtually.

GERRY: It's an old tradition in Ireland, like, when they're in their house, everybody goes to their house. So I was on Skype to everybody. Everybody was there, coming in and out, which was great. But at the same time, you know, it wasn't good enough, you know what I mean?

BURNETT: It's instructive to remember that in the late 1800s, Irish immigrants who came to America to flee the famine were stereotyped as a sub-class of clannish, bedraggled, no-good drunks who had too many babies. Working-class Americans resented Irish laborers who drove down wages. Signs stating, no Irish need apply, were common in Boston. Today, America loves the Irish and its Irish heritage. Perhaps, there's history lesson here. John Burnett, NPR News, Chicago.


THE WEAVERS: (Singing) No Irish need apply. Whoa says I, but that's an insult, though to get the place, I'll try. So I went to see the blaggard with his...


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* My mother was an Irish 'illegal immigrant'. She immigrated with her family legally to Canada in 1926. However, a couple of years later, she and her family crossed the border into the United States without documents. They were illegal immigrants. Some of them lived their entire lives in the U.S. without papers. My mom, however, became a U.S. citizen when she married my father - back in the day when citizenship through marriage was effectively automatic.

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