'Treated like a criminal' – Irish family man held as US deportation looms
Keith Byrne will be split from wife and children, sister says
The family of undocumented immigrant Keith Byrne (37) said he is being treated like a criminal as he faces deportation from the US.
Mr Byrne's sister, Melinda Maupeu Byrne, spoke to her brother on the phone yesterday from Pike County Correctional Facility in north-east Pennsylvania where he is currently being detained.
"He's feeling very low," she said. "He's been very down and he's worried about his wife - it's a lot to have three children on her own and working part-time. He supported them financially."
She said his children "turn around in the middle of the day and ask what time he's coming back - how do you explain it to them?"
Mr Byrne, originally from Fermoy, Co Cork, entered the US in 2007 under the visa waiver programme and overstayed.
His family said that, on the week he was due to leave the US, he met his future wife, Keren Zaga.
The couple, who live in Springfield, Pennsylvania, married in 2009. They have two children together, Leona (6) and Gabriel (4), as well as Ezra (13), Ms Zaga's child from a previous relationship.
He was arrested in Philadelphia by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on his way to work last Wednesday.
His family claim he was asked to sign a document admitting guilt that would have seen him deported within 48 hours. However he refused and they don't know how much longer he will be held in custody.
Ms Maupeu Byrne has said it would "break" her brother if he was deported to Ireland.
"We just don't know what will happen. It's very frustrating.
"He's being treated as a criminal and he's not.
"Maybe they'll make an example of him," she added.
In 2010, the family applied for Mr Byrne to be recognised as a permanent citizen, expecting a simple process due to him being married to and the father of US citizens.
However, because of two minor marijuana possession charges from Mr Byrne's early 20s in Ireland, and his breach of the visa waiver programme, his application and subsequent appeals were turned down and he was ordered to be deported.
Ms Maupeu Byrne said: "Since he decided to start building a life with her [Ms Zaga], he's been engaging with [ICE] and making submissions. He pays taxes, has a business - he's effectively a citizen."
Mr Byrne had managed to legally build a life in the US. After receiving work authorisation 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.
Mr Byrne's father, Jim, said he does not want his son to return to Ireland as his life is in the US.
"I don't want him back and to just be trying to get back in [to the US]. It's going to be very difficult to return."
Despite the Byrnes' ties to a prominent American family, Jim Byrne said his son has never attempted to use any connections in his long battle for citizenship.
"Keith wanted to do it on his own," he said. "But now he needs every bit of help he can get."
Jim explained how his aunt, Nellie Byrne West, who was born in Cork in 1903, emigrated to the US at 16 and worked at a children's hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
She later married oil tycoon Ike West Sr with whom she had two sons - Ike West Jr and Solomon 'Sol' West.
Ms West's daughter-in-law, Sandra Ilene West, is famously known for being buried in her blue Ferrari in 1977.
In her will, Ms West donated the family's $1.5m home to the San Antonio Preservation Society as a gift for the children's hospital.
The hospital now has a foundation in her name - the Nellie B West Society - that encourages members of the public to leave gifts for the hospital in their future plans.
A spokesman for ICE said Mr Byrne was arrested on July 10 for immigration violations and is in custody "pending removal".