Proposals under consideration in Congress could push open the front and back doors for Irish waiting to come to the United States to work, and for some already living here illegally. Bills introduced in the Senate and House by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) and Rep. Brian Donnelly (D), both of Massachusetts, provide for an additional 50,000 visas to be granted. A point system based on US employment needs, rather than the fact that an applicant has family members already living here, would determine who received visas.
US Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, also of Massachusetts, has introduced a bill in the House under which Irish immigrants who can prove they were living in the US illegally before Sept. 1, 1987, would be granted amnesty.
Boston, along with Chicago and New York, is among US cities with large Irish-American populations. It is also believed that the number of Irish people living in Boston illegally has increased in recent years.
``They're talking about revising the question of who gains entry to the country,'' says Boston immigration lawyer Adam Green of the Kennedy-Donnelly bill. ``Immigration has been based on family reunification since 1965, when they totally eliminated the special preference given to those from Europe and put all countries in the world on an equal footing,'' he explains.
Senator Kennedy's bill would open up the door for more immigrants to work in the United States by granting visas on the basis of occupations in need of workers, rather than on a ``job-to-job basis,'' says Jerry Tinker, staff director of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs.
About 80 percent of the 270,000 visas granted by the US go to applicants with close relatives living in the country. The rest go to people who can prove that they have jobs waiting here for them, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
From 100,000 to 300,000 Irish illegals are living in the US, according to estimates by Chuck McDermott, an administrative aide to Congressman Kennedy. They find work in big American cities where service sector jobs are usually left unfilled, and they are not easily spotted.
``You find [Irish] political science majors working on construction sites and people with advanced pharmacology degrees working as nannies,'' says Susan O'Donnell, a spokeswoman for the Irish Immigration Reform Movement. ``America is not really viewed as a foreign country in Ireland because of the English language being spoken, the Irish-American community, and the democratic tradition,'' she says.
Demand for the new legislation has mainly come from Ireland, Italy, Canada, and Britain, according to Mr. Tinker.
A 1965 immigration law promoting family reunification, sponsored by Senator Kennedy, put West European countries at a disadvantage, Tinker says.
Timothy Whelan, deputy director of the Boston district office of the INS, explains that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which cracks down on employers who hire illegal aliens, has been effective in reducing the number of Irish, as well as other foreign nationals, who can find work in the US.
``So,'' says Mr. Green, ``the pressure on Senator Kennedy by the Irish to do something became intense.''
Limiting the number of foreigners who can take US jobs may play well in middle America, where illegals are not a significant part of the work force, Green says. But with unemployment rates like Boston's 2.5 percent he asks, ``Where are you going to get your security guard, your household worker? Who's going to sell you hamburgers?''
Senator Kennedy's legislation is based on a point system used in Canada. Points are awarded to prospective immigrants for different skills and situations including higher education and speaking English, as well as living in an adversely affected country. A more recent amnesty date than the 1982 cutoff provided in the 1986 immigration act should apply to Irish illegals, Mr. McDermott of Congressman Kennedy's office argues, because the downturn in the Irish economy began after 1982.
Representative Kennedy's bill was written to take advantage of the current amnesty policy, which has not drawn the anticipated numbers of illegals applying for legalization, McDermott says. Only 810,000 illegal aliens have come forward to apply for legalization out of the 3.9 million that the INS was prepared for. Immigration officials are skeptical about the chances for new legislation so soon after the sweeping changes of 1986. ``We understand the situation of the Irish, but the bill should include all nationalities or else it looks very discriminatory, and I'm sure the government will fight tooth and nail against it,'' Green says.
Ms. O'Donnell sees the effect of Representative Kennedy's bill as reaching beyond the community of Irish illegals. ``I think the bill should encourage other ethnic groups adversely affected by the 1965 and 1986 legislation to mobilize and start lobbying on their own behalf because someone may listen,'' she says.