Undocumented and Irish in the 80s

Words: J. Stoltzfus


In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Trump administration could not immediately end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Today, around 700,000 young Dreamers benefit from DACA. DACA offers work authorisation and some measure of safety from deportation. It does not, however, provide legal status or a pathway to citizenship. 

While many are familiar with DACA, more might not have heard about the Donnelly, Berman, and Morrison Visa Lotteries of the late 1980s and early 1990s. These little-known programs were created, in part, to provide legal permanent residence to thousands of undocumented Irish indviduals in the United States. 

The island of Ireland has been a source of migration to the U.S. for centuries. During the Great Famine of the late 1840s and early 1850s, more than 1.5 million arrived in cities like New York and Boston. The majority spoke Irish and often faced discrimination for their ethnic and religious background. Those who were Catholic had landed in what was a Protestant majority country. Other significant waves of Irish migration to the U.S. came in the 1880s, early 1900s, and in the 1950s after World War II. 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the island was especially hard-hit by the global recession. Job insecurity and unemployment rates of up to 19% led a new group of Irish immigrants to American shores. Trading cities like Belfast and Dublin for New York and San Francisco, these individuals were often overqualified for the positions they took as nannies, bartenders, and construction workers. They called themselves the “New Irish” – a name they chose to separate themselves from the prior waves of Irish immigration. 

They encountered a different world to that of their predecessors. Although the U.S. was still a Protestant majority country, just a few decades earlier it had elected its first Catholic and Irish-American President, John F. Kennedy. 

What also made the New Irish different from those before them was that many arrived on tourist visas and simply overstayed, becoming undocumented. Immigration laws had changed significantly during the mid-20th century and in ways that made it more difficult for them to come legally, as their predecessors had. 

The New Irish were not the only ones affected by increasingly restrictive immigration laws. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 was meant to address growing concerns about America’s undocumented population, which at that point was predominately Mexican, and in the millions. IRCA aimed to reduce this number by providing ‘amnesty’ to some while simultaneously enhancing enforcement efforts at the border and enacting new sanctions for employers who hired those without work authorisation. 

Many New Irish were unable to benefit from IRCA’s landmark amnesty program. To be eligible, one had to prove continuous residence in the U.S. starting before January 1, 1982.

In anticipation of such an issue, several Irish-American members of Congress, including Brian J. Donnelly and Tip O’Neill, tacked a separate program onto the bill with the New Irish in mind. It would come to be known as the NP-5, or Donnelly Visa Program. 

Over the next few years, the Donnelly Visa Program would offer 40,000 Green Cards to applicants from 36 countries deemed to be ‘adversely affected’ by prior U.S. immigration law. 31 of these countries were in Europe and North America. In the end, individuals from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland together won 20,000 of these Green Cards. An aid of Donnelly’s at the time noted that ‘the whole thrust [of the program] was to aid Western Europeans, mainly the Irish. Being of Irish descent and representing the largest Irish district in the country, that was his [Donnnelly’s] concern.’

While Irish-American members of Congress like Donnelly mobilised on behalf of their undocumented European residents, support for non-white refugees from Central America was low. Asylum approval rates for those from countries like El Salvador and Guatemala dropped to 3% during the 1980s, while the New Irish’s efforts led to the creation of programs that offered more Green Cards than there were applicants for. 

In 1986, the Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM) was established in the Northeastern United States to campaign for more pathways to legalisation for the Irish. They lobbied Congress intensively. The following year an Irish-American newspaper, the Irish Voice, described two of the IIRM’s leaders as having ‘literally dedicated their lives to getting green cards—lots of green cards—for the Irish.’ Their efforts resulted in a number of programs similar to Donnelly’s, which also took the name of Irish-American members of Congress. These were known as the Berman (OP-1) and Morrison (AA-1) Visa Programs. They operated in the form of a lottery: once submitted, a few applications out of many were selected at random. In the Morrison program, 40% of the Green Cards were reserved for applicants from the island of Ireland. No other country received a special allotment. 

Eventually these programs evolved into what is now the U.S. Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) Program (colloquially known as the ‘Green Card Lottery’). Still in place today, each year it offers 50,000 immigrant visas to those from countries with low levels of immigration to the United States. In 2018, about 14.5 million people from around 200 countries applied. Both the low odds and the global reach of today’s program mark a significant departure from its original purpose in the 1980s. 

Those living in the U.S. without authorisation are generally no longer able to benefit from the program, and applications from the island of Ireland today are quite low. Instead, regions outside of Europe, such as Africa and the Middle East, now supply the largest applicant pools. Unlike their white European counterparts in the 1980s, these new applicants face miniscule odds. The contrast is jarring. There are often racial undertones to immigration policy, but the history of the U.S. Green Card Lottery presents a special case.

learn more

  • BOOK: Irish Immigrants in New York City, 1945-1995 – Linda Almeida
  • BOOK: Irish Illegals: Transients Between Two Societies – Mary Corcoran
  • ARTICLE: ‘The diversity visa lottery: a cycle of unintended consequences in United States immigration policy’ – Anna Law, Journal of American Ethnic History (2002)

J. Stoltzfus is a US Fulbright Scholar in the UK, studying Global Security and Borders at Queen’s University, Belfast.