It was a blistering August day when I rang my mother on a Greyhound bus somewhere outside Santa Cruz. It was my first time in America. My friend and I managed to latch on to the tail end of a west coast road trip. With us were a group of Irish girls who had been playing football in Chicago for the summer.
y mouth hadn’t closed once in the seven days I had been there – I was in awe. On the call, my mother asked me if it was everything I hoped it would be. I replied: “It’s better.”
That was August 2016. Three months later, Donald Trump would be elected president. In the four years since, America’s divisions have erupted with ferocious brutality. Those chasms have always been there, of course. Questions have always loomed over healthcare, racial prejudice, poverty and gun laws. They didn’t just appear following George Floyd’s death, nor did they only manifest after the Parkland school shootings. But they may have been easier for the casual observer to overlook.
If you watched The Last Dance on Netflix, you will have witnessed an ode to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, but it was also a love letter to the culture of the time. In Europe, communism had collapsed and to many the US was a beacon in the darkness – something to model and replicate. Everything was bigger, better and bolder there. Despite its obvious issues, the US was able to gloss over the societal and political cracks with its superstar personality. It was the land of opportunity.
In Ireland, our grá for the US started a century before. Ever since Annie Moore set foot on Ellis Island and was immortalised in statue and song, the idea of a better life across the Atlantic has remained an integral element of our psyche.
But in an America that becomes more fractured by the day, is the American dream still a reality for the Irish who live there and for those who hoped to emigrate? Or have recent events and an arduous visa processes tarnished the gloss?
For Jen, 25, (who asked not to use her full name), a year in the States on a graduate visa cemented her desire to plant roots there permanently. Unfortunately, the Galwegian is back in Ireland and her American adventure has been put on hold. With a place on a business master’s secured and a visa approved, the borders shut.
“My life is currently on standstill. I am waiting for something that might never happen. With the way President Trump has been speaking about student visas, I’m afraid I won’t even get into the country,” she says.
“America is a divided country. I saw racism all the time when I lived there. All of my American friends are so angry, and it’s very inspiring to see the country fighting back – but Trump is inciting the racism. He is adding fuel to the fire, especially now with the immigration bans.”
Fiona McEntee, an immigration lawyer from Dublin who is based in Chicago, agrees that parts of American society have become unnerving. “Police brutality is present and the lack of gun law is actually petrifying, to be honest,” she says. “You hear about these shootings in schools, and I have two kids here, so that is really scary.”
Under an executive order issued a fortnight ago, President Trump banned the H-1B, H-2B, J and L visas until the end of the year. The J category is a highly popular choice in Ireland and includes the summer working visa and a range of intern, trainee and graduate opportunities. The H-1B is widely used by tech companies and about 85,000 are issued each year. President Trump said the ban is part of a move to preserve jobs for Americans during the pandemic.
McEntee believes the decision has nothing to do with protecting the economy. “There has been a systematic effort on the administration’s behalf to reduce immigration. It’s not just all of a sudden that they want to stop immigrants,” she says. “They have been doing this since day one.”
The US’s immigration stance is turning dreams into nightmares for many Irish expats. Stephanie O’Quigley, a beauty publicist and podcast host from Dublin, says although her visa has not been affected, tensions are high. “There’s pressure because you are waking up and there are rumours going around of more executive orders and immigration bans. You start thinking, ‘Am I going to be deported?’ It causes unsettlement for people over here who have visas, have families and have settled here.”
O’Quigley has been living in New York for four years. She started out on a J1 visa and believes its suspension will prove to a roadblock for a myriad of hopeful Irish professionals. “It’s limiting the opportunity to get on that bottom rung of the ladder,” she says.
Having lived in the US since 2005, McEntee says she is still a “firm believer” in the American dream. “But we can see now how fragile it can be,” she says. “I think it has been under attack, and some people are trying to rewrite it. Here in the US, we need to fight for it a lot more, but I think this is a pivotal time and we are on the right side of history. America will always have that appeal.”
Jen remains optimistic about change and still imagines her future across the water, like the thousands before her. “Even now, I think to myself, why do I want to go to a country that clearly doesn’t want me? But honestly, I want to go back. I know how amazing it can be if you just get a chance. You can have such a good life there. Hopefully, the movements and the conversations happening right now will change the country for the better.”
For O’Quigley, career prospects and the chance to experience the diverse culture, people and spirit of New York city are what keeps her there. “I think the pros definitely outweigh the cons. My opportunity to make money and the scope of my job are much greater. I can’t scale up in Ireland the way I can scale up here. Despite the divide and the leadership of the country, that still stands. To me, that’s a no-brainer.”