Wednesday 21 August 2019

'They jumped on me like I was a criminal' - Keith Byrne calls US deportation arrest 'totally uncalled for'

Keith Byrne and Keren Zaga
Keith Byrne and Keren Zaga
‘Taking the advice of those around him’: Keith Byrne with wife Keren Zaga, son Gabriel when he was born, stepson Ezra and daughter Leona
Together again: Keith Byrne and his wife Keren on the way home after he was released Photo: Jackie Fox/RTE
Keith Byrne's children (pictured) are US citizens
(L-R) Keren, Leona, Keith, Gabriel and Ezra
Keith Byrne with stepson Ezra (13) and children Leona (6) and Gabriel (4)

Ralph Riegel

AN IRISHMAN fighting threatened deportation from the US said he is hoping against hope to be allowed continue living the American dream with his family.

Keith Byrne (37) from Fermoy, Co Cork admitted he was thrilled to be released from custody in Pennsylvania after 15 days and be allowed return to his wife and three children as a review of his immigration status was conducted.

Mr Byrne insisted from his US home to RedFM's Neil Prendeville Show that he was not undocumented - and had tried to do everything legally possible to regularise his status in the United States since 2010.

"My weekend was very good - but I'm absolutely exhausted," he said.

Keith with Keren, baby boy Gabriel, step-son Ezra and daughter Leona
Keith with Keren, baby boy Gabriel, step-son Ezra and daughter Leona

"It was amazing to get home - I feel very lucky, very fortunate. It is not something I thought would happen. I am still in shock.

"When I went in there (Pike County Jail) I was heartbroken. I didn't feel scared but I was heartbroken. They jumped on me like I was a criminal. I had tried for nine years to get things sorted and I thought I deserved a bit better than that."

Mr Byrne was detained without warning by US immigration officials as he travelled to work as a painter two weeks ago from his home outside Philadelphia.

"I think that is why I was released because it was clearly an error," he said.

"It was all emotional because I had built a great life here. We are all so close - my wife, my children and myself.

"I was in shock. I could not believe it was happening. We have tried so hard and been so honest and upfront about everything. It was

heartbreaking what happened.

"So many people are saying I am undocumented and overstayed my visa for 12 years. As soon as I was married to my wife I went and tried to get things sorted out in 2010. I was never undocumented. I have been trying really hard to get my status sorted out."

(L-R) Keren, Leona, Keith, Gabriel and Ezra
(L-R) Keren, Leona, Keith, Gabriel and Ezra

He said his entire family have been taken aback by the support shown to him since his detention.

"We have had so much support - it is overwhelming," he said.

"When I had a work permit I worked for a US firm as a painter. I worked for them for three years. Then I branched out myself and things went crazy - it was very successful. For the past 10 years I have had a really successful business. I have employed American people. If I go back, they become unemployed - and I become unemployed.

"I have sacrificed so much in order to do the right thing here and become a citizen. I have not seen my parents in 12 years and that has hurt me a lot. But I know that if i do things the right way, things will hopefully work out."

Mr Byrne said he remains baffled by his detention after he had gone to such lengths to regularise his status.

"I have heard some good stories and some bad stories (about Green Cards). I think it depends. I just don't know. That is why I am trying to do the right thing."

He warned that this deportation would cause nothing but suffering.

"Not only Ezra (stepson) but Keren's mum who has moved into our home so we can care for her in her latter years. There is a lot of things that will go wrong if I am deported."

He said he couldn't bear to face what would happen if his deportation was ordered.

"Temporarily I would come home alone - but my wife has assured me we will be together for the rest of our lives. So we will have to make adjustments.

"I don't want our lives to be torn apart by something I did. I work really hard so we can have a good life. But if everyone is going to be uprooted over a silly mistake I made 14 years ago. I was very young.

"It was minor, It was embarrassing. Every time I explain myself to someone it is so embarrassing - my whole future is up in the air over something so small."

As a young man, Mr Byrne faced a minor charge of cannabis possession in his native Cork. It remains unclear whether this is the issue which has blocked his ability to secure permanent status in the US.

"I have 30 days now. I am kind of scared, to be honest. My confidence is totally shocked because of the way they pounced on me and almost got me out of the country.

"I left my house and they (immigration officers) immediately followed me from my house. This unmarked car followed me for three blocks, pulled me over and arrested me. I said to them: 'What are you doing? You need to call my lawyer.' It was a horrible experience - they treated my like a criminal. They handcuffed me and even shackled my feet.

"It was terrible. I have been here for 12 years, working and building a future for my family. It was totally uncalled for."

Mr Byrne said he appreciates all the support he has been shown.

"I am sure (Irish politicians) are helping - all I know is that we have had great support from the Irish media. The support has been amazing and I just want to say 'thank you'. We are hoping - hopefully we are the family that gets it right and not the family that gets used as an example. I have spent so many years working from 7am to 7pm - I have worked so hard to be the person I am today.

"In 12 years I haven't even spoken to a police officer over here. A lot of things should count - I have built the American dream here.

"My life has been so hard not being able to travel back to Ireland. It has caused a lot of pain. I hope to reach a time where I can travel back and forth. It is so up in the air at the moment. Until I speak to my lawyer, I just don't know.

"I am so grateful to be here (at home) and not in prison where I was for 15 days. It was just awful. It breaks my heart to see people go through that who do not deserve it.

"I shared a cell with two people - nice people, hard-working people who are not criminals. One man was in this country for 25 years and they arrested him. He has two children and a landscaping business here. I think I am just another number, to be honest. I just don't know. I don't have enemies here - I have just friends, family and customers here."

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