Sunday 18 March 2018

Six things we learned from RTE documentary The Undocumented

The Undocumented, RTE One, 9.35pm
The Undocumented, RTE One, 9.35pm
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The Undocumented, which aired on RTÉ on Monday night, peeled back the skin of all those recent headlines and comment pieces, to explore what exactly it means to be illegal and Irish in America.

The show painted a personal, at times intimate portrait of six Irish people living undocumented in New York City and environs. Some have been there for years, even decades. They come from all parts of Ireland.

They run businesses, have families, live normal lives…except, of course, they’re totally abnormal, in that this American dream could be ended at literally any moment. The worry has been exacerbated by Donald Trump’s election. Will he follow-through on campaign-stump promises of building walls, metaphorical and otherwise, to better control immigration?

A quick word, before anything else, in rebuttal of the inevitable criticism of a documentary like this: “Oh but what about the illegals from other countries? What makes the Irish such a special case?”

You’re completely right – Irish immigrants are no better or worse than anyone else. This is, on the other hand, an Irish film made for an Irish audience. I’m sure the good people in Guatemala, Vietnam and everywhere else are shining a light on their own people, and best of luck to them.

Anyway, these were six moments that stood out:

  • Some figures first: there are an estimated 11m illegal immigrants in the US, and of those, some 40pc didn’t “sneak into the country” – they entered legally but overstayed their visas. Around 50,000 of our compatriots are reckoned to be currently undocumented Stateside.
  • Some contributors hadn’t seen their parents in years. The last time builder Niall saw his folks was on the day he left, a decade ago – and even then, he remembered wryly, they were asleep as his friend arrived to drive him to the airport.
  • All involved spoke about how there’s much more opportunity in US. “It’s nothing against Ireland,” one man said, but he “wouldn’t have been able” to own his own bar at home in Dublin, like he did in New York. Another bartender, meanwhile, reckoned it was “actually better being illegal, because everything you make is going straight into your pocket.”
  • There’s a strong sense of community over there. The Irish, we were told, will “go out of their way to help you find a job, find an apartment…and they wouldn’t do that for you at home.” You might know someone your whole life and they won’t go that extra mile for you, until the pair of you are pressed together by a shared situation.
  • Many illegal Irish, we heard, work in construction. Some work only for cash, though lots pay tax. The two golden rules of being undocumented are: stay out of trouble and stay out of the hospital. The second will cost you a lot of money; the first could end up with you being sent home.
  • Somewhere out there, in the vast heartland of America, is the “alpha undocumented”: the single person who’s been there illegally for the longest time, maybe for decades, and “who is part of America in every way you could imagine, apart from that most crucial part – being American”.

Everyone noticed the same issue with RTE documentary The Undocumented 

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