Among presidential candidates, a crucial point of contention centers on what to do with the estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. About three-quarters of these immigrants are from Latin America — but there are plenty of others who come from around the globe, including Europe.
Gerry is one of them. A 40-year-old Irish bricklayer who lives in a Chicago suburb, he sneaked into the country 21 years ago, crossing at the Canadian border with a fake driver's license. For that reason, he doesn't want his last name used for this story.
Now he's married, with a 5-year-old son and a small masonry business with six employees. One is a Mexican man who is also in Chicago illegally.
Gerry says he feels a kinship with the undocumented Mexican worker on his crew.
"He's got family, and he's worried about his family," Gerry says. "He's traveling from into the city to the job. He's probably worse off than me, because he probably doesn't have a license."
Chicago has been good to Gerry: He owns a house and a company. He's taken his wife on vacation to Las Vegas and New Orleans. If he'd stayed in County Tiperrary, Ireland, he probably would have taken over his parents' milk delivery business.
Gerry says he's speaking out because he wants people to know that the immigration system in this country is so broken, it affects him and his Mexican employee alike.
Gerry may feel more accepted and less of a target because he's Irish, but when he talks about his life in America, he sounds like many Latin American immigrants.
"I want them to see that we're hard-working people, and we're here to make a living, not to take anybody's jobs."
Gerry doesn't live in the shadows. Chicago is a sanctuary city. He knows if he gets stopped, the police are not supposed to share his information with immigration authorities.
But, like other immigrants here who don't have papers, he says he has to stay out of trouble.
"Saturday night I went to a party maybe an hour from here," he says. "I drove out, couple of my friends came with me. Never touched a drop until I came back closer to home, parked my car, went into the bar and had a few drinks and then got a taxi home."
Gerry is one of an estimated 50,000 Irish who are not authorized to be in the U.S., according to the Irish embassy in Washington, D.C. Most of have stayed too long on their visas, and most live in the large Irish populations of New York City, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.
There are some 33 million Americans of Irish descent — the second most Euro-Americans behind German-Americans. Nowadays, the U.S. and Ireland boast of a special relationship.
Whether that friendship influences immigration removals is hard to say.
Last year, nearly 177,000 Mexicans were deported; 33 Irish were sent home.
"The number of deportations is relatively small," says Anne Anderson, the Irish ambassador in Washington. "I think it's probably accurate to say they don't fit the profile that people consider for the undocumented."
She says that despite their relatively small numbers, the undocumented Irish in America are significant for a small country like Ireland, with only 4.5 million people. The embassy and prominent Irish-Americans periodically urge the U.S. government to push ahead with immigration reform. She says it would benefit the entire unauthorized population — not just latinos, who get most of the attention.
"We want people to understand that this is a multifaceted problem," Anderson says. "It's an issue that also wears an Irish face."
Like all foreign nationals living in the U.S. illegally, Gerry faces "locked-in syndrome": He cannot leave the country, because he'll be denied re-entry. He hasn't been back to the Emerald Isle in 16 years. When his grandfather died three years ago, Gerry attended the wake from Chicago — virtually.
"It's an old tradition in Ireland, like when they're in their house everybody goes to the house. So I was on Skype to everybody. Everybody was there coming in and out, which was great," he says. "But at the same time, it wasn't good enough, you know what I mean."
It's instructive to remember that in the late 1800s, Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. to flee famine were stereotyped as a sub-class of clannish, bedgraggled, no-good drunks who had too many babies. Working-class Americans resented Irish laborers who drove down wages. Signs stating "No Irish Need Apply" were common in Boston.
Today, though, America loves the Irish and its Irish heritage — to the point that every St. Patrick's Day, the White House even dyes the fountain on its South Lawn green.
Perhaps there's a history lesson here.
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