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US immigration clampdown: is it a matter of race?

After the arrest of Corkman Keith Byrne, unauthorised Irish immigrants fear deportation from the US. But are the Irish treated more favourably? Kim Bielenberg reports


Keith Byrne and wife Keren Zaga

Keith Byrne and wife Keren Zaga

Keith Byrne and wife Keren Zaga

John Cunningham and Dylan O'Riordan were both Irish immigrants who might have expected to live out their days in the United States.

In the Boston area, Cunningham was regarded as a pillar of the community as chairman of his local GAA club.

He had arrived in 1999 on a 90-day visa, but like many of the Irish "undocumented", he stayed on when the visa expired and started his own company.

He lived with the anxieties of those who fear that immigration police might some day come knocking on his door, but nevertheless blended in with the local Irish community. There were many others in his situation, and it must have seemed like there was safety in numbers.


‘Taking the advice of those around him’: Keith Byrne with wife Keren Zaga, son Gabriel when he was born, stepson Ezra and daughter Leona

‘Taking the advice of those around him’: Keith Byrne with wife Keren Zaga, son Gabriel when he was born, stepson Ezra and daughter Leona

‘Taking the advice of those around him’: Keith Byrne with wife Keren Zaga, son Gabriel when he was born, stepson Ezra and daughter Leona

O'Riordan, now in his early twenties, must have had even greater reason to believe that he could continue to live in the US.

Originally from Galway, he arrived in the country with his parents when he was aged just 12. His parents both had green cards, entitling them to stay, but he was brought in on a 90-day visa, which expired.

Cunningham and O'Riordan are among the high-profile Irish cases of deportation since Donald Trump came to office in 2017.

After they were arrested by the much-feared US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency ICE, they were held in detention and put on planes back to Ireland.

Cunningham, originally from Glencolmcille, Co Donegal, was deported in 2017, and is now believed to be living in Dublin.

Aged just 19, O'Riordan was flown back to Ireland last year and is thought to be living in Galway. His wife and small daughter remained behind in the United States.

The nerves of Irish immigrants without regular visas are again on edge this week following the detention of Corkman Keith Byrne.

Byrne, originally from Fermoy, Co Cork, was arrested 10 days ago by the immigration authorities and by Thursday of this week was facing the prospect of deportation back to Ireland.

Byrne has lived in America since 2007, when he travelled there under the Visa Waiver Programme. He overstayed his allowed term and married his partner Keren Zaga in 2009. They have two children and she has a child from a previous relationship.

In 2010, the family applied for 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 his early 20s in Ireland, and his breach of the visa waiver programme, his application and subsequent appeals were denied.

The arrest of Byrne came just days before a planned high-profile clampdown by immigration police across cities in America. President Donald Trump had vowed to launch mass deportation round-ups over the weekend, causing immigrants and their advocates to brace themselves for large numbers of arrests, but by Sunday evening there were only reports of low-profile operations in a few cities.


Keith Byrne with stepson Ezra (13) and children Leona (6) and Gabriel (4)

Keith Byrne with stepson Ezra (13) and children Leona (6) and Gabriel (4)

Keith Byrne with stepson Ezra (13) and children Leona (6) and Gabriel (4)

Ronnie Millar of the Irish International Immigration Centre in Boston told Review this week: "People are on edge if there is any kind of ICE activity at all. There is a constant fear of them apprehending someone - and the Irish are getting caught in it."

Like other groups, Irish immigrants worry that their irregular status will be found out.

As Fiona McEntee, an Irish immigration lawyer in Chicago, put it: "You have mothers dropping children to school, and not actually knowing for sure that they will be able to pick them up."

'Tiny fraction'

Experts in the field dealing with immigration such as Millar and McEntee freely admit that the Irish are not the target of Trump's clampdown.

"These immigration policies and changes are purely motivated by race," says Millar. "The Irish are getting caught up in it, but because of the colour of our skin, we are not the main target. It's people from Central America who are the target."

The figures gathered by the Department of Foreign Affairs seem to suggest that illegal Irish immigrants are not faring much worse under Trump when it comes to deportation.


Immigration rights activists hold the Shutdown ICE rally outside the immigration agency's HQ in Washington. Photo by Michael A McCoy

Immigration rights activists hold the Shutdown ICE rally outside the immigration agency's HQ in Washington. Photo by Michael A McCoy

Immigration rights activists hold the Shutdown ICE rally outside the immigration agency's HQ in Washington. Photo by Michael A McCoy

It is hard to put a precise figure of the number of unauthorised Irish immigrants in the States. Estimates vary from 10,000 to 50,000. The Migration Policy Institute estimates the figure at fewer than 16,000.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, just 45 people were deported from the US to Ireland last year. That was up from 34 in the previous year.

The figures do not differ significantly during Trump's time in office to Barack Obama's tenure in the White House, where there could be around 50 deportations in a typical year.

The 45 Irish people deported last year were a tiny fraction of the 256,000 total of immigrants who were deported from the US last year.

Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute says members of the unauthorised Irish population are unlikely to come to the attention of US immigration authorities and face deportation. The vast majority of those who are forced to quit the country are Mexicans or Central Americans.

Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts, agrees.

"Communities of colour have been targeted first and most aggressively - but no community is immune," she says.

Some of those working in the immigration field believe the case of Keith Byrne shows that ICE is just as draconian when it comes to dealing with Irish people as it would be with Mexicans or Central Americans.

But others believe that unauthorised Irish immigrants tend to be portrayed in a more positive way than those of other backgrounds.


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

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

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

The popular Puerto Rican blogger Julio Ricardo Varela has complained of "Irish immigrant privilege".

Immigration lawyer Fiona McEntee accepts the idea of "Irish immigrant privilege", especially in cities such as Chicago and Boston.

McEntee, a UCD graduate who originally went to the US on an exchange programme 15 years ago, says: "Being an Irish immigrant, you do get treated differently - and I think that is down to the hard work of everyone's ancestors.

"There are a lot of Irish people in the legal profession, the judiciary, the police force and in politics. So, you do get treated more favourably.

"With that privilege comes the responsibility to advocate for other immigrants," she adds.

At the Irish International Immigration Centre in Boston, they not only counsel Irish people, but also immigrants of other nationalities, including those from Central America.

"To be Irish, we need to help ourselves, but also others," says Ronnie Millar.

It is hard not to be moved by stories of middle-aged Irishmen and women being unable to return home to visit parents or attend their funerals, because of fears about their irregular status. They may have overstayed a visa without a care in the world, but as the years pass, their lives have become more complicated. In many places they can't acquire a driving licence, and they may fear going to an emergency ward.

But not all Irish-Americans have sympathy for their plight, including many of those who went to the US legally.

The Irish-American website Irishcentral.com has covered some of the stories of Irish people overstaying their visas, and there are many criticisms of the undocumented Irish in the comments sections.

Below one report about an Irish mother who has almost gone into hiding with her autistic son out of fear of the immigration authorities, a respondent called Seamus says: "If you are from Ireland living illegally in the United States then you made the choice to overstay your visa, and that choice has consequences. No point crying and blaming Trump for this mess!"

On another news site, an Irish immigrant who arrived with a visa in the 1960s expresses the view that people should come in legitimately or stay at home.

Millar says he has little sympathy for those who criticise the undocumented Irish and proclaim that they themselves came in the legal way. "It's like pulling up the ladder on the lifeboat, because you yourself are safe. It's not a very compassionate approach. Everybody makes mistakes"

While the number of Irish unauthorised immigrants being deported every year is small, the sense of fear is genuine.

Families torn apart

For those who travelled to the US on a holiday visa under the visa waiver programme and then overstayed, there is little recourse to justice once they are held in detention.

"There is no leeway," says Millar. "You could be married to a US citizen and have US citizen children and still be deported.

"We have seen families being torn apart, and mothers and fathers being taken away from their children."

Immigrants across the US who are considered vulnerable to raids have been receiving advice on how to respond if the enforcers from ICE call.

They have been informed that the immigration police cannot enter their homes without a warrant. During a crackdown last weekend, there were reports that many householders simply did not answer the door when police called.

"We would advise the undocumented to have a family readiness plan," Millar says. "You have to have a plan for who will look after the children, who will look after the business and the house."

The case of Keith Byrne, who was facing the prospect of deportation this week, is considered unusual, because he is being punished for minor offences of marijuana possession committed in Ireland.

After he was arrested in Philadelphia 10 days ago, his wife Keren said in an interview that he had gone through all the correct legal channels to adjust his status since 2010.

According to immigration counsellors, the risk of deportation varies enormously in different states and cities across the US.

In "sanctuary cities", such as Boston, Chicago and New York, there is only limited co-operation between local police and ICE.

Undocumented immigrants such as the Donegal electrician John Cunningham and Dylan O'Riordan often get caught when they have an encounter with the police or courts.

Cunningham was deported in 2017 for overstaying his visa. It was reported that a warrant had been issued for Cunningham's arrest in 2014 after he failed to appear in court on an allegation he did not complete work he charged a client for.

Climate of fear

O'Riordan came to the attention of immigration enforcement after he was arrested for domestic assault when he got into an alleged argument with his girlfriend Brenna in a shopping centre.

Dylan told National Public Radio in the US: "It was nothing at all. Some woman called the cops, said I was abusing my girlfriend."

His partner Brenna denied that she had been assaulted, and he was not prosecuted, but when he was freed, an officer from ICE detained him for overstaying his visa as a child. O'Riordan and his partner married while he was in detention before his deportation.

For most of the unauthorised Irish immigrants, the chances of deportation may be slim, but Trump has still created a climate of fear.

They don't know when they will receive a knock on the door or be asked by a police officer for a driver's licence, which they cannot get. They worry about engaging with their ­neighbours out of fear that they will be reported.

"We are now seeing an increase in the number of people who are giving up and returning to Ireland, because they can't live with the dread," says Millar.


Immigration in numbers


Total number of deportations from US to all countries last year


Total number of deportations from US to Ireland in 2018


Estimated number of unauthorised Irish immigrants in US


Total number of unauthorised immigrants in US, including five million from Mexico

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