Resurgent Irish Immigration to the US in the 1980s and early 1990s: A Socio-demographic Profile



Irish immigration to the US has been motivated traditionally by a lack of employment opportunities at home. With the passage of the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, however, Irish immigrants were no longer explicitly favoured. Family reunification became the primary path of entry, which worked against the Irish who had lost their immediate generational link with US residents.

During the severe Irish recession of 1980–85 a resurgence in Irish outflows resulted in a large undocumented Irish population in the US. Most of this population was later legalized as a result of special legislation that targeted the Irish. There have been concerns in Ireland that the outflow in the 1980s, unlike prior flows, included a high proportion of skilled persons, leading some to characterize the outflow as a “new wave”.

This article uses US immigration data to assess how the occupational characteristics of recent Irish immigrants compare with prior immigrant cohorts and also examines how Irish immigrants are incorporated into the US economy.

Recent Irish immigrants to the US spanned the occupational spectrum: accountants, engineers, nurses and other professionals found a booming job market in the most advanced sectors of the US economy, while less skilled immigrants found jobs in the informal economy. While the number of entering Irish professionals increased, flows of the less skilled increased even more dramatically, resulting in an overall decline in the occupational selectivity of Irish immigrants.

The 1980–85 Irish recession has been followed by robust growth for more than a decade. Ireland is now experiencing a net inflow of persons, including many Irish professionals returning from the US. However, Ireland continues to experience a net outflow of the young and less skilled which may once again result in a large undocumented Irish presence in the US.