ASK YOURSELF this multiple-choice question: Who deserves to live in America?
A.) A college student who grew up here, whose parents brought her here illegally from Mexico as a child.
B.) An Irishman with a bachelor’s degree.
C.) All of the above.
D.) None of the above.
If you’re like me, you might agonize over this. There is a part of you that wants to welcome all hard-working, bright people to America, and another part that knows it would get mighty crowded if they all came.
Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown faces no such paralyzing conundrums. He knows the answer: It is definitely B.
Brown didn’t support the “Dream Act’’ — legislation aimed at providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as kids — because that would be “back-door amnesty’’ for people who broke the law. But he has emerged as a champion for one tiny slice of the would-be immigrants: the Irish. He’s filed a bill that would create a special visa to would allow 10,500 Irish workers — and their spouses — a chance to live and work legally in the United States for two years. Renewable indefinitely.
The reason this is fair, Brown says, is that “for decades, the Irish have been unfairly shut out by our immigration laws.’’
When I hear this, I am stunned. I want to correct the injustice. But then I look up the numbers.
Over the last 30 years, more than 100,000 Irish people have been granted permanent residency in the United States. That’s 2 percent of the Irish population. Can you imagine 2 percent of all Costa Ricans or Congolese getting green cards? And if they did, could you imagine anyone complaining about being shut out?
The lion’s share of those green cards for applicants from Ireland came through special legislation, similar to Brown’s bill, specifically aimed at boosting visas for the Irish. The green card lottery program was originally conceived as a way to legalize undocumented Irish. In some cases, politicians’ willingness to help even exceeded the supply of immigrants; 4,000 green cards set aside for Irish applicants under the so-called Morrison visa program in the 1990s were never collected.
So why do the Irish feel so poorly treated by US immigration laws today? In fact, 2 percent of the Irish population feels tiny in comparison with the 10 percent who were welcomed here between 1910 to 1939. The relative slowdown in Irish immigration feels like a betrayal of a deal that the island struck with America. If welcoming immigrants had been part of what makes America American, sending people away was part of what made Ireland Irish.
“To be Irish is to make up your mind about whether or not to leave Ireland,’’ Irish-American author John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote.
Ireland had half as many people in 1950 as it did a century earlier. The country’s recent economic boom was supposed to have changed the pattern, as the number of people arriving in Ireland outpaced the number people leaving, for the first time anyone can remember.
But the subsequent economic collapse has sent Ireland back to its old ways. Of the half a million Irish people who come to the United States every year on 90-day visitor visas, an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 join the undocumented work force.
So many of Ireland’s youth are leaving again that — in a St. Patrick’s Day speech — sociologist Micheál Mac Gréil proposed charging the United States a tax to cover the expense of educating them.
However good Brown’s visa program sounds to Irish-Americans, can losing so many young people possibly be good for Ireland?
“It’s not good for Ireland,’’ says Niall O’Dowd, editor of the New York-based Irish Voice. “This nonsense is perpetrated by the authorities of Ireland that people were leaving voluntarily and would come back when the time was right. A large percentage leave because of economic circumstances, and a large percentage never go back.’’
Even though O’Dowd supports Brown’s bill, he knows that it will help to empty Ireland of the very young people the country needs to rebuild itself. Poor counties all over the world tell the same story. Except that, in an election year in Massachusetts, the Irish have political clout to carve a path for their immigrants. The children of undocumented Mexicans, not so much.