Irish Immigration Slips Into Reverse

As Post-9/11 Security Increases Pressure on the Undocumented, Emerald Isle Offers Haven

By Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006; A03

NEW YORK -- By now the shipping container carrying Jonathan Langan's material life in the United States has arrived in Ireland. The plush green furniture, his American flag and the construction tools of his trade are all gone from his Queens apartment.

Langan, a lanky, red-haired Irishman, was bidding a final farewell to his adopted country. He didn't leave for want of work -- his fledgling construction company was booming. Success was his problem. The more prosperous his company became, the more Langan feared he would get snared by immigration agents.

"You don't want to give off red flags because you're not supposed to be working," said Langan, 24, who lived illegally in the United States for three years. "It's too dangerous, what happens if you get caught."

The green is draining out of the Irish immigration boom that revitalized neighborhoods across New York over the past two decades. Fear of getting caught in a post-Sept. 11 net coupled with the booming economy in Ireland is drawing thousands of Irish back to the Emerald Isle. Numbers vary on how many have left: The Irish government estimates that about 14,000 Irish returned from the United States since 2001, with more than half of them coming from New York. The Census Bureau reported that between 2000 and 2004, the Irish population throughout the United States shrank by 28,500 people, to 128,000.

A more vivid picture of the exodus is the Gaelic downtown of the northern Bronx, on the border with Yonkers, where green signs and shamrocks decorate store windows.

The Padded Wagon, a popular moving company among the Irish, shipped 30 containers to Ireland in the past three months, each containing the possessions of an Irish family. The Irish games -- Gaelic football and hurling -- have suffered losses. More than 200 players returned to Ireland in the past year, said Seamus Dooley, president of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which has its games at Gaelic Park in the Bronx.

Last month, the Irish minister for social affairs visited New York, to unveil "Returning to Ireland," a guide for Irish preparing for a permanent return trip.

"A travel agent was saying they had sold 1,700 one-way tickets to Ireland," said Geraldine McNabb, an Irish-born naturalized citizen, while she sipped a cranberry cocktail at a pub. "They're not coming back."

Post-Sept. 11 security procedures have disrupted life for the city's undocumented Irish, who number about 20,000, according to estimates by Irish officials and activists. Few experience immigration raids in their homes and job sites. In 2005 just 43 Irish nationals were deported from the United States, none from the New York area, according to U.S. immigration officials.

But federal and state policy changes, the fingerprinting of foreign nationals at airports and a crackdown on driver's licenses have made it much more difficult to hop a plane to visit relatives or drive a car. And tighter scrutiny of banking transactions to prevent the financing of terrorism has scared off families and made starting a business far more dicey.

"What's more alarming to me is people who've been here for years and years are packing up. Families are moving," said Nollaig Cleary, president of the women's division of the New York Gaelic Athletic Association. "You've had the community people who set up business and their families, they're going."

Brenda Flannagan, 31, immigrated illegally to the United States in her twenties, looking for adventure. Now she has a husband and a baby, and is looking to settle down. A trip back to Ireland to visit her parents could leave her open to discovery by immigration officials -- so she is going home for good.

Raising a child will only compound her difficulties here. "You can't drive. It will get more difficult," said Flannagan, who expects to leave in the fall. "Things like play dates and after-school activities."

With fewer immigrants pouring in, and so many Irish packing up, pub talk revolves around the question of the survival of the Irish spirit in New York. Irish immigrants poured in by the hundreds of thousands in the 19th century and again in the early 20th century.

A third wave came in the 1980s when the Irish economy tanked, and it rejuvenated Irish culture in New York, as politically inspired Irish rock and hip-hop bands worked the club scene, and Irish theater and poetry spread throughout the city.

"You have a great Irish neighborhood beginning to crumble," said Niall O'Dowd, publisher of the Irish Voice and chairman of the newly formed Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. "Unfortunately Americans are mixing up terrorism and immigration."

The Irish, however, retain considerable political clout. Fifteen years ago, they successfully lobbied Congress to direct tens of thousands of green cards into the hands of undocumented Irish.

O'Dowd and other activists recently rallied the fighting Irish spirits at Rory Dolan's pub in Yonkers, as they begin lobbying for an immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.

The Irish government contributed 30,000 euros, ($40,000 at today's rate) to the effort. Tim O'Connor, Ireland's consul general in New York, stresses that the United States played a vital role in helping to stimulate Ireland's economic boom with investments.

"It's in the interest of both countries that we have people who have the ability to go back and forth between both countries," said O'Connor, noting that 15 percent of new businesses in Ireland were built by returning Irish.

Some Irish take their leave with optimism, looking to the jobs and construction boom in their homeland.

"Everything is so good in Ireland," said Flannagan, while her husband, John, a carpenter, was at the pub enjoying "a few sociables." "There's a lot of construction work for the guys."

Flannagan held her baby girl, a U.S. citizen and last link to the United States. "Maybe she can sponsor us when she's 21," she said. Then, she added, "I think the notion of coming back, by then, will be gone."