No Irish Need Apply

A fistfight erupted inside Scruffy Murphy’s in Dorchester right before Christmas. Witnesses say the drunken brawl was over a girl, and that it began when one young man head-butted another. It landed one of the men in the back of a police cruiser and the other with a summons — not exactly an unfamiliar scene late at night along Dorchester Avenue. But this fight was different. It sent a chill through the neighborhood, and out to Brighton, Somerville, and Allston, where many of Boston’s Irish live.

Irish and undocumented, the two young men became the stuff of urban legend. This would be no drunk-and-disorderly beef or drawn-out string of trivial court appearances. By the next night, word had spread down the street from Scruffy’s to Nash’s and then all over the capital of the illegal Irish nation that agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had arrived at police headquarters after the arrest, and that the boys, both part of Boston’s vast, clandestine Irish exile world, were ferried off. Whether to jail or to the Auld Sod, no one knew.

“No one’s going home for Christmas this year,” one young Irish man — who has lived undocumented in Boston for seven years — said at the time. “Not this year. If you leave now, you’re never coming back.”

They were bulletproof, Boston’s Irish. An irish-man with an out-of-date passport, expired visa, or, for that matter, no visa at all, had little cause to fear being deported from this town. Take, for example, what happened when Congress passed tough new immigration laws in the mid 1990s in reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing and the first World Trade Center explosion: Forty Guatemalans living illegally in Boston were sent packing by the local office of the INS. So were 243 Dominicans and 16 Cape Verdeans, among others. Of the city’s illegal Irish community — which some estimates put at 5,000 of the 25,000 Irish nationals who help make Boston the undisputed seat of Irish America — the number deported totaled four.

“All these deportations and no Irish,” says Victor DoCouto of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. He pauses. “Gee, I wonder why that is?”

Sarcasm like DoCouto’s is a measure of how much of an open secret was the underground network of illegal Irish in this town, protected by the economic and political clout of the established Boston Irish. A whole covert support system was headquartered in the dark, smoke-filled interiors of Irish pubs in Dorchester and Allston where undocumented Irish could get jobs with Irish contractors and other employers who weren’t too particular about work visas, cash their paychecks, hook up with sympathetic landlords, and find cheap cars for sale.

“Getting swallowed up into the community never really presented a problem,” says Padraig O’Malley, an Irish-born senior fellow at the John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at UMass Boston. As for politicians, he says, “it’s a matter of looking after your constituents, and when the biggest block of constituents are Irish or belong to Irish organizations, then you cater to their needs. That’s been true for more than 100 years, all the way back to Tammany Hall. Of course, it’s unfair, but it’s also true that ultimately we’re all part of a tribal system.”

But now, suddenly, Irish immigrants are standing alongside Dominicans and Cape Verdeans in the cross hairs of the immigration bureaucracy. This crackdown seems to be sticking, threatening a subculture that has been part of the Boston landscape for decades, and it’s putting everyone who is not a bona fide American on notice: Have your papers in order. The “or else” is understood. “The truth is, Irish have been among those being picked up [by the INS] since September 11,” says Kieran O’Sullivan of the Irish Immigration Center in Boston. “They’ve been stopped at the airport, everything.”

One Irish pub owner jokes about the good old days, when a routine underage drinking check or a scuffle that drew the cops may have raised a few heartbeats, but that’s all. “Half my bar staff, half my clientele,” he says, “nobody has documents.” Police never asked about anyone’s immigration status. “The cops used to cut you some slack, but now they have no choice. They have to see your documents, have to call INS.”

That’s why bar owners frown on allowing video recorders these days — out of deference to the undocumented. No cameras, either. And any after-hours crap that could attract attention, like the incident on Dorchester Avenue, is dealt with harshly.

“The word is out,” says Connell Gallagher, publisher of the area’s Irish Emigrant weekly newspaper. “You just can’t screw around like you used to.”

And if you’re Irish in Boston, that’s saying something.

The 2000 census may have concluded that Asians, blacks, and Hispanics now make up the majority of Boston’s population, but those were just statistics. Boston is an Irish town. The Irish dominate, in business, in politics, in sheer numbers. Twenty-five percent of state residents, asked by the census to describe their ethnic identity, called themselves Irish, the highest concentration in the country, outnumbering the second most populous group — Italians — by more than two to one. With just 2 percent of the total U.S. population, Massachusetts is home to 4 percent of all Irish Americans. It’s no mystery why the American Ireland Fund has its international headquarters here — or how it managed to collect an impressive $2.2 million at its annual black-tie affair in November, which was attended by the city’s elite, at the same time other charities were struggling to compete for money with the post-September 11 relief efforts.

For years, of course, the Irish have been a special case in Boston’s swirling immigrant mix. Irish history is among the most celebrated in a city obsessed with its own role in America’s past. For the Irish of Boston, the story is a proud tale of beating back the discrimination of the Brahmin establishment. Beginning in the mid 1800s, the Irish were blamed for a rise in crime and depicted as welfare cases and drunkards. Their allegiance to their new country was questioned because of their suspicious loyalty to a Roman pope. They came anyway, to escape famine, civil war, and an industrial economy that had left them behind. They took dangerous jobs for low pay and lived in crowded tenement houses. And they got a foot in the door. Today, reproductions of the no irish need apply signs that once hung in Boston shop windows can be found framed and mounted proudly as a sort of badge of honor in the well-appointed suburban homes of third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Irish. And whether they stay in Southie and Dorchester or move to Milton or Dedham, the Irish remain unfailingly reliable voters. “They came and they began to vote,” says Thomas O’Connor, a Boston College historian and author of The Boston Irish. “And they continue to vote.”

The Irish cemented their long and impressive rise to political power in Boston with the election of Hugh O’Brien as mayor in 1884, and broadened their influence with the ascendancy of U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the Kennedys, and others. How influential were they? By the time Congress ran a lottery to hand out 40,000 new visas to applicants from 34 countries in 1991, two Massachusetts politicians — Senator Edward M. Kennedy and then-Congressman Brian Donnelly — led the efforts to set almost half of them aside exclusively for immigrants from just one place: Ireland.

And, in fact, the Irish kept on coming, the vaunted Irish economic miracle notwithstanding. While the flow has fallen from the peak of 20,000 Irish per year who left their home country for the United States in the 1980s, an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Irish made the trip annually during the 1990s, many to Boston, according to the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants.

“There may still be building jobs in Dublin,” says Kevin O’Neill, head of the Irish Studies Program at BC. “But for a young guy in rural Ireland, it’s sometimes easier to pick up stakes and move to Boston. The networks are in place here.”

For leaders of other ethnic immigrant communities, those networks have always been a source of envy, if not frustration — and the attention the INS now seems to be paying to the undocumented Irish was a long time coming.

For these other groups, American immigration law had become increasingly restrictive. Tough new rules that Congress passed in 1996 made it easier for foreigners to be deported. Deportation could even be imposed for past crimes. Portuguese families in New Bedford and Fall River reported relatives being packed up and sent back to the mid-Atlantic islands of the Azores for misdemeanors committed years or even decades earlier. Activists in Boston and Brockton began a campaign against what they saw as a process of singling out the burgeoning Cape Verdean population.

The INS moved detainees at will. A Dominican arrested on immigration charges in Boston could find himself housed in a cell rented in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, then shipped to Oklahoma, away from relatives and lawyers. Longtime permanent residents of Massachusetts disappeared into a black hole. Portuguese officials estimate that as many as 400 American Portuguese, most of them from Massachusetts, were deported to the Azores; many had been living in America since the 1970s.

The Irish never felt the same bite of those laws. The reasons, experts say, were obvious. White and English-speaking, the Irish don’t attract the same attention as dark-skinned foreigners. “You’re virtually invisible,” says DoCouto of the Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “You can speak the language. You don’t have physical characteristics that set you apart like Central Americans or Brazilians do.” More than that, the city’s heavily Irish police, court, and political machines kept the newcomers out of harm’s way or, at the very least, smoothed the way when any ran afoul of the law. Sympathetic local prosecutors could be urged to reopen cases and lower sentences for relatively minor crimes to just under one year — the cutoff at which the INS comes knocking. It may not be politically correct, immigration lawyers say, but an educated, middle-class Irish kid, who can express regret for his transgressions, makes a better case for such a so-called “revise-and-revoke” than a poor Creole- or Spanish-speaking member of an immigrant community beset with the poverty and crime that helped land him in court in the first place.

The advantage the Irish have is social and economic — not political — says Brian O’Neill, a Boston immigration lawyer and nephew of the legendary House speaker. “If the charge is leveled that the Irish are somehow getting away with murder here, I think the argument could be made that Irish assimilation into our culture is easier. The Irish bring with them not just white skin and English as a first language, but a familiarity with the legal system in their country that doesn’t differ radically from our own. The justice system in some [other] countries, often inefficient and corrupt, doesn’t correspond in the same way.”

On one front, at least, the Irish did have a problem: overstaying visas. Many had grown accustomed to overstaying temporary work or student visas because they knew they could simply straighten things out later. This changed in 1996. Overstaying a visa for more than 180 days now means an automatic ban of three years on returning to the United States. An Irishman who went back to Dublin on the frequent cheap flights out of Logan could find himself turned away when trying to reenter.

Kennedy and other lawmakers, including Congressman Barney Frank, pushed hard to have those laws relaxed. And they were making headway. A package of bills, many of them written by the Massachusetts delegation, passed the Senate last summer. It was aimed at rolling back the tough new immigration standards to the pre-1996 rules.

A vote in the House was scheduled for September 11.

After the terrorist attacks that day, no one in Congress wanted to soften anything associated with immigration. To no one’s surprise, Kennedy’s proposed reforms fell by the wayside. A subsequent attempt to tack the changes onto the Border Security Bill failed. September 11 had managed to do what the booming Celtic Tiger economy back home and the tough changes to deportation law in 1996 could not: stem the flow of illegal Irish immigrants into Boston.

“I’ve seen a huge difference in levels of enforcement,” says Eoin Reilly, a Boston immigration attorney who sheds his tie and provides pro bono legal advice in Irish pubs and elsewhere. “A lot more people are being turned back. There really is a lot more anxiety in the community, and it’s because there’s a lot more scrutiny.”

There could be more still. The Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus wants to eliminate existing immigration provisions, such as the annual diversity visa lottery, a primary source of legal entry for Irish immigrants over the last decade. The Irish Immigration Center already reports a case in which an Irish immigrant who had lived and worked in Boston for eight years and was approved for U.S. citizenship went home to Ireland to visit her brother, who had cancer. When she returned to the United States, INS agents at Logan took her green card and Irish passport and ordered her original visa application reexamined. Only after intervention by the Irish Immigration Center was the woman finally allowed to stay.

The next chapter in the long saga of Irish immigration will have a lot to do with what happens to an Irish construction contractor named Thomas Ramsey.

After the immigration laws were changed in 1996, Ramsey was among the few Irish deported from Boston, sent back to Northern Ireland in August 2000. Like many deportees, Ramsey left behind not only his livelihood but also a wife and young son when he was forced to return to troubled West Belfast.

Ramsey reentered the country illegally just a few weeks later through Canada, but was picked up by the INS in Quincy in September 2000. If the INS is tough on undocumented immigrants and noncitizens who run afoul of the law, it is considered merciless on those who come back after they’ve already been deported. “It’s the number-one cardinal rule: Don’t come back,” one immigration expert says.

But Ramsey’s attorney, Robert Bent, tried an unusual tactic: He began filing an application for his client for political asylum after Ramsey’s name and photo were discovered in an Orange Order Hall in Northern Ireland. The Orange Order is associated with the Protestant paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland that remain loyal to the British and exact revenge against the IRA by murdering Catholics. Ramsey argued that his life would be endangered if he returned to his home country.

Held in a cell rented by the INS in the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction, Ramsey waited for a judge to consider his application. It was a long shot. While Boston may have supported republican causes in the past, and politicians like Ted Kennedy played roles in the Ireland peace process, the United States seemed unlikely to grant asylum to someone whose argument is that the British government’s policy in Northern Ireland might get him killed.

But Ramsey’s Irish luck may not have run out. Judge Eliza Klein will hear Ramsey’s argument that he is in danger from Protestant paramilitaries; in the meantime he has been released.

More such immigration cases may be headed into court, where judges instead of influential politicians will decide the fate of the undocumented Irish. These days, Congressman Frank says, “When people ask me for help, I tell them to get a good lawyer. A good lawyer can do more for them than I can. And there certainly are a lot of politically connected Irish lawyers.”