If it weren’t for a certain virus plaguing the world at this moment, more than half the American population — an estimated 57 percent — would be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday. Cabbage consumption would have increased by 70 percent; 13 million pints of Guinness would have been consumed; rivers would have been dyed green; 70 percent of revelers would have worn green; and an estimated $245 million would have been spent worldwide on beer — much of which would have, of course, been green.
As an Irish-born immigrant, living in the U.S. since my early 20s, I’ve always liked to think of the enthusiasm for Ireland’s national holiday as a moving salute from an immigrant nation to an emigrant one. Irish people have, after all, been emigrating en masse for centuries and, with the U.S. being a preferred destination, the bonds between our countries have historically been strong.
This year, however, with most festivities canceled (including the iconic parade in New York City) it seems like a good moment for some sober reflection on how harsh immigration policies — supported by many self-identified Irish Americans — are not just decimating those bonds but the community they engendered.
Green beer may have its place, but it’s a poor substitute for the more coveted green cards.
It’s long been of concern to the Irish American community of which I’m part of in New York that, for the past two decades, the flow of new arrivals from Ireland has effectively ground to a halt. Few among the tens of thousands of us Irish people who landed on these shores in the 1980s and ’90 had any idea that we were part of what might have been the last big wave of immigrants from the old country.
Sadly, that decline has nothing to do with Irish demand for visas, but with a severe reduction in supply. In 2018 — the last year that statistics were available — nearly 10,000 Irish hopefuls entered the U.S. green card lottery; only 123 visas were awarded to them. Statistics from other years reveal a similar ratio of applications to visas granted. Without a steady trickle of new blood to replenish it, Irish America is naturally experiencing an erosion — not just in actual numbers but in its identity, too.
In 1980, some 40.2 million Americans claimed Irish heritage, while the last census in 2010 showed that number dropping to 34.7 million, a 13.6 percent decline in just 30 years. In the same period, the number of Irish-born residents in the U.S. dropped from 250,000 to just over 150,000. What this pattern of decline amounts to, according to sociologists, is that Irish America has reached a stage called “late generation ethnicity” — that is to say, a community that is no longer being replenished by new immigrants.
The broader impact of this new stage is that Irish Americans, particularly the younger generation, are becoming increasingly distant from their cultural roots. For instance, a recent study by the UCD Clinton Institute, which looked at young, self-identified Irish Americans in the greater New York area, found that a majority had never visited Ireland, have no contact with relatives in Ireland and are not members or any Irish-American clubs or institutions.
The implications of this cultural distancing are already all too clear in the political realm. While Ireland has become increasingly liberal of late, legalizing same-sex marriage, expanding access to abortion and voting for political parties with progressive socialist agendas on health and housing, Irish America is growing increasingly conservative. Although self-identified Irish Americans supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and were key supporters of Bill Clinton, a majority broke for Donald Trump in 2016. This despite the fact that Trump seems to be unaware that Ireland is its own country, and not “basically the U.K.,” as he put it recently to Ireland’s prime minister — or that Trump’s immigration policies have made it harder for Irish people (and everyone else) to get even temporary work visas, never mind green cards.
But what does the cultural estrangement mean for future relations between our two historically linked nations? Ireland has certainly come to rely on its Irish American allies for economic support, between the millions of dollars in grants and awards raised by the American Ireland fund each year for business and charitable endeavors, and the direct investment by U.S. corporations in Ireland. Politically, too, America has come to Ireland’s rescue more than once, including playing a vital role in the Northern Ireland peace process and more recently in helping fend off underhand attempts to reinstate a border in Ireland during the United Kingdom’s negotiations to leave the European Union (and therefore dismantling the hard-won Good Friday Agreement) following the Brexit vote.
While it’s fair to say that Ireland has a lot to lose if the U.S. were to suddenly lose interest in us, the U.S. has something to lose, too, by preventing Irish people from continuing to contribute to the great American experiment. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power to former CIA director John Brennan to cultural extravaganzas like Riverdance, Irish-born immigrants have punched well above their weight when given the opportunity to do so.
Of course, among our distant diaspora there are a few too many supporters of Trump’s xenophobic policies — some of them household names like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon — that we’re perhaps less proud of. But that’s all the more reason to keep campaigning for more new arrivals who could perhaps steer our community onto a more progressive track.
A recent push by the Irish government to allow Irish citizens to avail themselves of the unused portion of Australian’s E3 visas — two-year renewable visas that permit Australian citizens and their spouses to work in the U.S. — seems to have a decent chance of securing U.S. Senate approval eventually. Even though the move would exclude many Irish who don’t have the necessary academic credentials, it would at least be a welcome step toward keeping an ailing relationship vibrant.
What the Irish and other immigrant groups really need, however, is a more expansive immigration policy that allows the many people with dreams of living in America a fair shot at achieving that. With much of the world practicing social distancing, and with bans on travel between numerous countries — including the U.S. and Ireland — for the immediate future, it’s a tricky time to advocate for more porous borders. But all the unforeseen divisions that have suddenly been forced upon us should really be making us treasure all the more the historic bonds that unite us.