During the last three decades of the twentieth century, the United States began welcoming a new great wave of immigrants. This was in large part a consequence of the liberalization of American immigration law in 1965. However, Ireland’s contribution to this new wave was relatively small. During the 1970’s, people from Ireland made up only 0.2 percent of immigrants to the United States. During the 1980’s, they made up only 0.4 percent.
The government of Ireland helped to keep this migration at a relatively low level. The nation’s leadership had become concerned about the loss of young people from Ireland’s relatively small population during the middle of the twentieth century. During the early 1960’s, the government in Dublin persuaded the administration of U.S. president John F. Kennedy to reduce the number of American visas available to potential Irish migrants. In addition, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 gave first preference to immigrants who had immediate family members living in the United States. Because Irish immigration had been relatively small for decades and was then limited by agreement between the two nations, the number of people in Ireland with parents, children, or siblings living in the United States was small.
Irish immigration surged in the 1990’s after Connecticut congressman Bruce Morrison sponsored a special green card lottery system for visas that became known as “Morrison visas.” New legal residents from Ireland jumped from 4,767 in 1990 to 12,226 in 1991 as Morrison visas became available. However, the Morrison lottery ended after only three years and Irish immigration began to decrease again. The temporary increase in arrivals did not change the historical trend of a decreasing Irish-born population in the United States. By 2007, fewer than 170,000 people born in Ireland were living in the United States, less than one-tenth the number of the Irish-born residents during the late nineteenth century, even though the total American population was much larger at the beginning of the twenty-first century than it had been a century earlier.
Despite the comparatively small numbers of immigrants from Ireland at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century, the long history of Irish settlement had created a distinctive Irish American identity. According to census estimates made between 2005 and 2007, by the first decade of the twenty-first century more than 22 million Americans, or 7.5 percent of the total population, gave their first ancestry as “Irish”; close to 14 million, or 4.6 percent, gave “Irish” as their second ancestry. Close to 4 million people gave Scotch-Irish as their first ancestry and another 1.5 million gave that as their second ancestry. Altogether, more than 41 million Americans, 14 percent of the total population, traced at least part of their heritage to the Emerald Isle during the early twenty-first century.