Undocumented and Irish: An Excerpt from “Dreamland”

The following is an excerpt from Dreamland: America’s Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction by Carly Goodman, available now wherever books are sold.

Phenomenally well-researched and wide-ranging . . . . a feat . . . . Goodman hops smoothly from topics as diverse as the history of Irish immigration to the impacts of structural adjustment in West Africa to the visa lottery’s role in the first internet spam incident. Goodman chose her topic well. The visa lottery is a remarkable window into the role of the United States in a highly unequal world.

Tim Hirschel-Burns, Los Angeles Review of Books

book cover for Dreamland by Carly Goodman

Undocumented and Irish

The first time Sean Benson landed in New York, he came as a student from Ireland, on an exchange trip to see the country that loomed so large in the Irish imagination. The second time, he took a gamble. It was the same flight, just a few years later—EI #105 from Dublin to JFK—but this time was different. After finishing his degree in management at Trinity College, he had struck out in the job market in Ireland. Many others suffered the same fate. Benson was part of a postwar Irish baby boom reaching adulthood only to find that good jobs and opportunities weren’t keeping pace with their numbers.

Leaving home wasn’t easy. In fact, the idea that he would ever have to leave his home and his family had been the furthest thing from his mind. His parents never thought they’d have to say goodbye to their children. But by 1985, with degree in hand and no job, he felt he had no choice—not if he was going to live the kind of life he’d dreamed of and planned for. There were simply no options for him in Ireland. Reluctantly, he entered a kind of exile. Even so, he was ambitious, ready to begin his life as an adult, to earn a living, and to put his education and skills to use.

Benson had worked briefly on Wall Street when he was first in New York on a J-1 exchange visa, so he was ready to pick up where he’d left off. Wall Street in the 1980s was dazzling—the stuff of Hollywood glamor in films like Wall Street (1987) and Working Girl (1988). New York, city of possibilities, was where he would start his life. He talked his way into a tourist visa at the U.S. consulate in Dublin, packed his bags, and soon found himself sharing a city with the Statue of Liberty—and millions of dreamers and strivers. There was nobody to greet him at the airport when he arrived, but a friend had a place in Woodside, Queens, where he could crash. He and about ten other guys, all of them undocumented, stayed there. Within a couple of days, he had landed a job at a restaurant on the east side of Manhattan.

Six months later when his visa expired, Benson stayed.

As an immigrant without legal status or work authorization in the United States, Benson joined a growing cohort. Between 1982 and 1986, hundreds of thousands of Irish people—as much as 10 percent of Ireland’s population—fled a cratering economy at home. Nearly 150,000, like Benson, sought a new life in New York.

In 1987 alone some 105,000 Irish people entered the United States as temporary visitors, with 81,000 listing “pleasure” as their reason for travel. That unemployment in Ireland stood at 19 percent at the time hinted that many of these tourists intended to stay in the United States and seek work. Overstaying nonimmigrant visas was hardly unique to the Irish. A government commission that studied immigration had recommended in its 1981 report that the United States devote more resources to investigating people who overstayed temporary visas (and “student visa abusers”). Though they entered the country with permission, those who continued to live and work here beyond the terms of their visa did so without authorization.

By the mid-1980s, several million noncitizens were living without status in America, some of them Irish, but many more hailing from Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere. People who couldn’t secure immigrant visas often came anyway, drawn by the promise of better opportunities and work, dreams of a more stable life, or driven away from unlivable conditions at home. The reason that people migrated without permission was that the United States strictly limited legal immigration. Even those who resided for a long time in the United States, who felt fully enmeshed in their American communities, struggled to access legal status because of the limitations set on immigration. But people did what they had to do to survive—crossing the border without permission, overstaying temporary visas, working without authorization, sometimes using random digits as their Social Security numbers. Benson happened to have received a Social Security card in his name during his previous, temporary stint in New York, which made getting a job easier this time around. But he observed that employers typically hired undocumented people in his circle with a “wink and a nod” in those days.

After work every night, Benson and his mates would go out, enjoy the city, soak up its lights, mingle, and flirt with the Irish girls coming off their shifts as Upper East Side nannies. Wall Street money was driving the opening of shiny new restaurants and sophisticated clubs, while downtown artists kept the city loose and hip. The city was gritty, bustling, and dense: the opposite of staid, green, old-fashioned Ireland.

But New York felt familiar too. For generations, Irish immigrants had made new lives in New York, worked hard, raised their families, and left their mark. And while they’d historically known hardships, encountered discrimination for being Irish or Catholic, and even been targets for xenophobic violence, they had also thrived over the years, transforming blocks and whole neighborhoods of the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan, setting their kids up for white, middle-class suburban lives and upward mobility. Telltale Irish pubs dotted the city. Each March witnessed parades and parties for St. Patrick’s Day. The actual, and mythic, roles played by Irish immigrants in building New York and making the city what it was now fed the imaginations of the young Irish immigrants carving space for themselves in the 1980s, even though they were generations removed from those previous, storied migrations. Just as their predecessors had, the Irish immigrants of the 1980s would leave a lasting impact on America and its relationship to immigration.

Carly Goodman is senior editor of Made by History at the Washington Post