Trump very unlikely to end emigration impasse

Emigration is, like rain, a constant of Irish life.

Some days it pours, other days not. Some years tens of thousand of Irish people, many with jobs, move abroad. In other years they may not have to and stay at home.

A good proportion of every generation says its farewells, promising to return. Heartbroken parents nod supportively but know that very many, maybe the majority, will not return.

A piece of one person’s life is cut way as another’s is transplanted to a faraway place.

Despite today’s communications, despite the comparative ease of international transport, a weekend chat on Skype does not draw the sting of that separation.

Ageing parents, who have everything they want or need except that which they want most— their children and grandchildren around them — put on a brave face, but life moves on relentlessly.

A cohort of earlier emigrants, who did not enjoy the comfort of a Skype get-together, was honoured yesterday when a plaque was unveiled at the London Irish Centre to remember those who left Ireland in the 1950s.

That generation, many relatively uneducated compared to today’s emigrants, helped rebuild Britain after the war.

Many of them — the Forgotten Irish — are gone but many of those who remain have lost contact with Ireland and are adrift in a country they cannot recognise as home.

That so many of those men and women sent money home to try to break the cycle of poverty here adds to the deep sadness of the situation. It underlines our responsibility to them, especially as the society they made such a contribution to is hardening its attitude against emigrants.

It is an indication of how far this society has come that today’s figures are far, far lower than they were in the 1950s when over 400,000 people — a net figure — left Ireland.

Almost three out of every five children born in 1950s Ireland left at some stage. Figures from 2016 tell a very different story.

That year’s figure was 10,700, down from 23,200 the previous year. That positive trend is, partially at least, built on the sacrifice of those remembered in London yesterday but the complexities of trying to build a life in a foreign country remain, like rain, a constant in Irish lives.

The Trump presidency has sharpened anxieties among undocumented Irish people in America, many there for a good number of years.

“Undocumented” may be a polite way of describing someone who is, in the cold glare of the law, an illegal emigrant. How they are defined is not the primary issue for the Irish in America who are susceptible to the questionable charms of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement — they are far more interested in how their plight might be resolved, how their residency might be regularised.

These issues were brought into focus recently when long-time Massachusetts resident Donegal man John Cunningham was arrested on “immigration violations” by US federal agents.

Early fears that this was the start of a crackdown seem to have lifted but the problem of 11m people living illegally in America remains.

Given Mr Trump’s outrageous rabble rousing on the issue it is hard to be even mildly optimistic.

Maybe in 50 years someone will unveil a plaque to the undocumented Irish who lived lives trapped in Boston.


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