More Irish have come to the United States over the years than are left in the Republic of Ireland, and an immigration lawyer says recent changes in U.S. law will increase the immigration rate.

Carl Shusterman said the number of Irish-Americans celebrating St. Patrick's Day will be up by more than 16,000 next year because of changes in U.S. law incorporated into the Immigration Act of 1990.Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and other members of Congress with Irish backgrounds helped the legislation along, he said.

While immigrants usually need to have close relatives in the United States or a job in this country to obtain legal immigration status, the new program allocates 40,000 positions per year for "diversity." Those immigration slots are to be filled by people from countries that made up a large portion of U.S. immigration in the past.

The Irish were the first large non-English group who came to America under their own free will, he said.

Shusterman said the Irish are guaranteed to get 16,000 of the 40,000 sets of "diversity" immigration papers in addition to a share of the other 24,000 for the next three years. After that, they will compete with other groups for 55,000 immigration slots allocated for diversity.

The change in the law may not actually result in an increase in the number of Irish people in the country. With an unemployment rate of 20 percent at home, hundreds of thousands of Irish have already entered the country illegally and the law will help give some legal status, Shusterman said.

The most recent wave of Irish immigration began in the 1980s as the economy of Ireland suffered. Because many of the most recent Irish immigrants did not come to the United States until the mid-1980s, they were unable to take advantage of the amnesty program that allowed many longtime illegal aliens from other countries to obtain citizenship.

Nearly 5 million people have emigrated from the Emerald Isle since 1820. There are now only about 3.5 million people in the Irish Republic.