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September 1, 2006

Has America Become Immigrant Nation?

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"I'm putting 110 percent into the immigrationreform movement, because if it fails, I fail."

SAMANTHA, 31, FROM IRELAND

People don't look at me and think, There's an illegal alien--but that's what I am, even though I'm white, I speak English, and I'm working on a master's degree in psychology. Growing up, I had what we in Ireland call "itchy feet." I always wanted to travel and search for something better. But you can't tell my story without telling the whole history of Ireland: After the mass migration during the potato famine, it became almost a rite of passage for young Irish people to come to the U.S. When I was 11 years old, a teacher asked my class what we dreamed for our futures. I raised my hand and said, "I want to change the world," and then I added, "and I want to go to America." After I graduated from college in '97, I came to New York to visit for a couple of months. I found a job bartending and made some good friends. Months quickly turned into years. I moved back to Ireland for a while, but I was miserable. There was nothing for me there, so I returned to the U.S. If someone had told me then that in 2006 I would still be undocumented and working as a bartender, I'd have said, "Are you crazy?" And yet, here I am. For five years, I waited and hoped. I was sure that any day, Congress would pass a law allowing immigrants with steady jobs to stay here. In the meantime, I got married (to an undocumented Irishman), went back to school, and tried to live life as normally as possible. But I can't travel home to see my family. I miss funerals and weddings, and I can't move ahead with my career because I have to take jobs that pay in cash. I haven't had children, because what if I'm deported? My kids could stay--they'd be U.S. citizens--but I'd have to leave. It's like somebody pressed pause on my life plans. From the outside, it probably sounds crazy that anyone would want to live like this, but when you're on the inside, you just get on with it. You're always thinking, I'm going to get the visa, I can't live like this forever, something is definitely going to happen. Then I realized nothing would happen if I didn't get involved. I joined the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform and began speaking out at marches and meeting with members of Congress. The goal of the group is comprehensive reform, not just for Irish people, but for every immigrant group in America. I turned 31 in July, and there are so many things I want to do in life--set up my own counseling program, start a family--but I can't do them without a visa. So I'm focused on getting Congress to pass this bill. Without it, I lose everything I've dreamed about.


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