Friday 23 August 2019

'The kids are very upset and confused' - Cork dad, married to US citizen for decade, faces imminent deportation under Trump crackdown

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

Mícheál Ó Scannáil

A Cork man, who has been living in America for 12 years and married to a US citizen for almost a decade, faces imminent deportation as the Trump administration cracks down on unauthorised immigrants.

Keith Byrne, originally from Fermoy, was arrested on Wednesday by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and now awaits deportation back to Ireland.

Mr Byrne has lived in America since 2007, when he travelled there under the Visa Waiver Programme. After meeting his wife Keren Zaga as his visa approached its end, he decided to stay in America.

Despite overstaying his allowed term the now 37-year-old married Ms Zaga in 2009 and lives in Springfield, Pennsylvania with their two children Leona (6) and Gabriel (4), as well as Ezra (13), who is Ms Zaga’s child from another relationship.

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

Ms Zaga said that her husband’s arrest and probable deportation is tearing her family apart.

“It has had a huge effect in every aspect,” she said.

“Emotionally, he’s like the rock of our family, the kids are very attached to him. He runs a business here that supports our family. I’m not going to be able to keep this house that we just bought without him being here and contributing financially.

 “I told my four-year-old and my six-year-old where he is in a very simple way, so they understand that he may not be able to come home and they understand that he might have to leave, but they’re very upset and confused.

“I have a 13-year-old as well and he’s very scared. He has a lot of friends here and has family here himself. He has a father here and a-whole-nother family here as well, so it’s not simple.

“People say, ‘Ireland’s a great place just move there, it’s not the end of the world,’ but it really would be the end of the world for my children. It’s harder than anyone can imagine.”

In 2010, the family applied for Mr Byrne’s status as a permanent citizen, expecting a simple process due to him being married to and the father of US citizens.

Because of two minor marijuana possession charges from Mr Byrne’s early 20s in Ireland, and his breach of the visa waiver programme however, his application and subsequent appeals were denied and he was ordered to be deported. 

According to his sister Melinda Byrne, the message her family have received from Mr Byrne since his arrest, is that he feels guilty for the effect his former actions have had on his family.

He should no longer be punished for his charges however, she says, which he received for being in possession of one joint.

“His words were, ‘[I’m] guilty for the one mistake in my life.’ It’s just devastated the family,” she sobbed.

“He said he feels ashamed, devastated and broken. He made a stupid mistake as a young guy and it’s there to bite his butt. He was always looking over the shoulder but he was always just trying to do the right thing.

“He’s been an outstanding citizen. There has been nothing since he’s been in America, God no, nothing. He has two charges that they’re trying to get removed. In 2016 there was a bill that looked at having charges dropped after seven years, but it’s just not coming fast enough unfortunately.”

Mr Byrne had managed to legally build a life in the US. After receiving work authorization and a Social Security number he started a painting business which supported his wife through college, and, in February his family moved into their dream house.

The Cork man was arrested on the way to work on Wednesday however, as his family prepared for a day at the waterpark, and he is currently detained at the Pike County Correctional Facility in north-east Pennsylvania, three hours away from his home.

Adrian Smith, a spokesperson for ICE told the Independent that despite the appeals, the planned deportation will still go ahead.

“In 2007, Keith Byrne, 37, a citizen of Ireland, entered the United States as a non-immigrant under the Visa Waiver Program and failed to depart the United States under the terms of his admission,” he said.

“ICE arrested him on July 10 for immigration violations and issued him a visa waiver removal order. He is currently in ICE custody pending removal.”

Since the charges he received in his youth, Mr Byrne has had any run-ins with the law. Ms Zaga said that he has been the perfect citizen in America.

“What is a good citizen? Someone who contributes to their society, someone who works hard, contributes to the economy, raises good children that will grow up to be good citizens as well,” she said.

“He is all of those things. He contributes to charity and pays his taxes every year. Even though he was having such a hard time with everything he was still just doing all of the things that he should do.

“He has been here legally for years and years. It’s frustrating. It’s really scary. Just because he became illegal for a minute doesn’t mean we’re going to accept that. We’re going to continue fighting.”

His arrest came as part of nationwide raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which began last Sunday and will continue until next Wednesday.

Although the numbers have not yet been reported, thousands of immigrants are thought to have been arrested in the raids, which Donald Trump claimed are part of a process to remove “millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.”

In April, Mr Trump promised to crack down on immigrants who remain in the US after overstaying their visas. According to ICE’s annual report, the number of Irish immigrants deported last year under the Trump administration rose to 47, from 26 in 2016.

Those Irish citizens deported are part of a group of illegal Irish immigrants estimated by John Deasy TD, to be around 10,000 strong. The government envoy to the US Congress, who works with the issue of the undocumented Irish in America, claimed that the previously accepted figure of 50,000 was greatly exaggerated.

The number of these Irish forced from the US is minuscule however in comparison to the 140,000 immigrants from Mexico who were deported last year.

Mr Byrne’s sister praised the Department of Foreign Affairs for their help, saying that within an hour they had contacted officials in the US. A spokesperson for the government body refused to comment however.

“In line with our usual practice, we do not comment on individual cases,” he said.

Ms Zaga concluded that her husband is suffering hugely from the events that have unfolded. Regardless of what happens though, she said their family will stay together.

“He’s very up and down. He was very depressed but I just keep telling him that we’re doing so much out here to try and rectify the situation and do whatever we can to get him out and to stop what’s happening.

“I just keep asking him to stay hopeful and to just focus on his health in there and to just know that we are all fighting for him out here. My focus right now is getting Keith out of detainment.

“I have to stay focused on intervening on what is happening to him because he’s being held up as a criminal at the moment and he’s not a criminal.

 “If worst comes to worst, the intent is that we would go with him. We’re a family we have to stay together. Our kids deserve to be around their father.”

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News