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Dublin: 2°C Monday 12 April 2021

Aaron McKenna: Whatever will we do about all those job-taking immigrants?

Isn’t it odd that, at the same time as we’re begging for amnesty for illegal immigrants in another country, we posses near Arizona Tea Party Republican levels of antipathy towards certain segments of our immigrant body at home, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THERE ARE SOME 50,000 people in-country illegally, working for cash under the table whilst driving taxis with rented plates, waiting tables in restaurants and serving pints from behind bars; or working in factories and construction. They don’t pay any income or social insurance taxes, nor do their employers; but they make use of publicly provided services just like everyone else, from public parks and clean streets to emergency medical care and the protection of the police.

They cost the state about €21,500 per year per household, or €430,000,000 in lost taxes and unpaid for social benefits. This is to say nothing of the economic cost they impose by keeping locals unemployed and unable to compete with the black economy. For sure the work they do contributes to the economy, as any work does, but as it exists outside the normal system it costs law abiding citizens at an individual level as well as the pain it delivers to the exchequer.

Having revealed this startling figure I am only sure that I’ll be on with Joe come Monday afternoon to join my fellow citizens in shouting down any soft bleeding hearts who tell us that these folks deserve an amnesty. They’ve been breaking the law, Joe. They’re taking good jobs away from our own, Joe. Think of the children, Joe… I mean, bad enough we give the child benefit to the Polish!

Double standards

Thankfully for blood pressure everywhere, there is not such an extensive group of illegal immigrants in Ireland. But there are believed to be about that many Irish “undocumented” in the US, and a case during the week served to highlight just how ambidextrous our politicians and commentariat can be when it comes to the issue of Irish working illegally abroad.

A student visiting the US on a J-1 visa wrote about her experiences. She wasn’t undocumented, but she did admit that she had been working in a bar against the strict conditions of her visa; which precludes students visiting the country from taking work away from locals. Perhaps not the cleverest move to make, but what was galling to many was that she was turned in by a body that is supposed to help Irish people on visas in the US – the Irish International Immigrant Center in Boston, which receives taxpayer funding from Ireland to the tune of €200,000 per year.

Local politicians didn’t even bother to cloak their implication that a body receiving funding from the Irish government should help people break laws abroad. Sinn Féin’s foreign affairs spokesman Seán Crowe gave a very perfunctory “I of course do not in any way condone and encourage anyone to break the terms of the visa,” before going on to say that: “The IIIC and other Irish immigration support agencies should be helping immigrants, rather than acting as immigration enforcers.”

Of course, he neglected to consider that as the IIIC is the sponsor of this particular visa it had vouched for this girl. It’s a well known fact that a tremendous amount of J-1 students work on the side, but this girl popped her head above the parapet in a very visible fashion and I would suppose that the IIIC would rather be painted the bad guy for reporting on one case than having US immigration officials from the Department of Homeland Security – a friendly bunch – come knocking on their doors.

The plight of the ‘undocumented’

Irish Central editor Niall O’Dowd said that “because students find it impossible to survive on intern’s wages, [...] many have to find a way to supplement their income.” The argument that an American could make, and that an Irish person might make if a student was visiting Ireland on such a visa, is that if you can’t survive on the wages of the work offered… Don’t go.

The J-1 visa is specifically designed for cultural exchange and to allow individuals to train in the US. The program began in 1961 with the aim of sending trained individuals back to their home countries and help the image of the US abroad. It is not a temporary work visa beyond the conditions set down.

There are many more Irish in the US beyond the J-1s, and the plight of the “undocumented” is well known here: Irish people who went to the US on a tourist visa for three months and stayed to take up work. Many left here during times of economic hardship in the past and during the current recession. They’re estimated to number about 50,000; and Irish governments have been actively lobbying politicians in the US to introduce immigration reforms that would allow these Irish a path to a proper work permit or citizenship.

Recession has changed the US labour market

The immigration debate in the US is an ongoing and highly embittered one. Economically speaking, the US needs immigrants in the long-term to help sustain growth. (So do we, incidentally.) During the crisis, however, when millions of Americans lost their jobs, immigration from places like Mexico tailed off and the debate about being tougher in policing the borders became even more heated.

Laws in certain border states have been introduced – and made it through long court battles – to allow police to stop individuals and demand proof of their residency or citizenship. Police situated around the Mexican border are, of course, keeping an eye out for a particularly brown skinned type of individual; which opponents of the law – many of them US citizens born and bred – point out is discriminatory racial profiling.

Even today, when unemployment is nominally falling in the US, there remains millions fewer people counted unemployed because they have simply dropped from the workforce. The amount of new claimants for the US dole is about the same as our total unemployment… Every week.

The debate in the US is about finding a balance between allowing in highly skilled workers – something our own government recently created thousands of new visas for – and dealing with the masses of less specialised immigrants who are displacing Americans trying to get back to work. There is also the thorny issue of what to do with immigrants who have been in the country for years and have raised their families in the US; with an amnesty currently on the table for discussion.

We should be more consistent in the application of our values

The plight of Irish immigrants in the US is naturally concerning to us. It does strike me as odd however, that at the same time as we’re begging for amnesty for illegal immigrants in another country we posses near Arizona Tea Party Republican levels of antipathy towards certain segments of our immigrant body at home; illegal or otherwise.

The girl who is being sent home for breaking the conditions of her J-1 was silly to get caught. The idea that the Irish body that sponsored her was wrong to turn her in is also a silly idea. If that’s the position we take then we have very little moral high ground from which to pontificate about people working in the black economy at home, let alone those foreigners working here perfectly legally by way of EU citizenship.

We might think about being a little more consistent in the application of our values in having a mature debate on immigration.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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