Wednesday 11 December 2019

'When my dad died, I couldn't go home for his funeral...': The story of America's undocumented Irish residents

President Obama's bold plan to offer an amnesty to millions of America's undocumented residents has given fresh hope to the thousands of Irish families living in the shadows.

Life in shadows: Donncha and Siobhan with their children Ciara and Harry at their home in Yonkers
Life in shadows: Donncha and Siobhan with their children Ciara and Harry at their home in Yonkers
Life in shadows: Donncha and Siobhan with their children Ciara and Harry at their home in Yonkers
Ciara and Harry have both visited Ireland

Graham Clifford

As President Obama announced this week his controversial plan to reform the USA's immigration laws, raw unadulterated optimism spread across the country's undocumented population of approximately 11 million.

All over America, in big cities and small towns alike, the undocumented held their breath and dared to hope.

Ciara and Harry have both visited Ireland
Ciara and Harry have both visited Ireland

In their living room outside Yonkers, Donncha and Siobhan couldn't quite believe what they were hearing.

"I watched the President's address, then re-winded it to hear it again because I couldn't take in what he was saying the first time," explains Donncha, who's been undocumented in New York for 15 years and hasn't set foot in Ireland since 2001.

His children watched on, not fully understanding the complexities of what the President was saying but seeing hope in their father's eyes.

"I'm a hell of a lot more optimistic now than I was in recent years," says the Kerry native. "I think about home every day, my family, my friends, where I grew up. To think we might be able to return home as a family one day is something else."

Donncha and Siobhan will be eligible to benefit from the immigration reform rule changes. They've been married for over a decade and have two children, Ciara (14) and Harry (10) - both born on American soil.

Read more: There's no place like home for Christmas

It's estimated that at least 20,000 of the 50,000 undocumented Irish will qualify for the Deferred Action Programme - which will give legal status to the undocumented parents of US citizens.

In recent years, Ciara and Harry have returned to Ireland to spend time with their grandmothers and relations while their parents have ventured no further than the airport's boarding gates.

Life in shadows: Donncha and Siobhan with their children Ciara and Harry at their home in Yonkers
Life in shadows: Donncha and Siobhan with their children Ciara and Harry at their home in Yonkers

"It can be very hard saying goodbye when all you want to do is get on that plane with them to see your family," explains Siobhan from Louth, her voice trembling as she recalls those uncomfortable goodbyes.

"My sister is married to an American and she usually goes home with the children", she says."Ciara has been back to Ireland four times and Harry once. She was in Kerry for her grandmother's 80th birthday party which meant so much to Donncha."

At the end of June Ciara starred as the New York Feile Girls Gaelic football team were crowned All-Ireland champions in Mayo.

"On the day of the final Siobhan, Harry and I were sitting on a beach in Long Island," recalls Donncha.

"Every few minutes we'd get a text through updating us on the score. We were trailing by four points…we thought the game was up. But then another message came through to say our girls had won. I was jumping around the beach roaring with delight like a madman. We had an All-Ireland champion in the family, we were hugging and kissing each other. It was very emotional. In that moment all we wanted to do was be on the pitch in Ballyhaunis with our wonderful girl."

Read more: The pain of emigration most affects the mothers left behind

But, of course, they couldn't. The risk of being refused re-admission to the States would destroy the lives they've made for themselves there.

The owner of a successful flooring business, Donncha employs six staff and pays almost $50,000 in taxes each year. He provides insurance for all his workers and is totally compliant in his revenue dealings.

He tells me that the US authorities know who is documented and who isn't but choose to turn a blind eye occasionally.

Life in shadows: Donncha and Siobhan with their children Ciara and Harry at their home in Yonkers
Life in shadows: Donncha and Siobhan with their children Ciara and Harry at their home in Yonkers

"I know an Irish guy who runs an electrical business here which employs about 150 people. He wasn't documented and was caught for tax evasion. He actually had the FBI sitting in his frontroom telling him that they wouldn't deport him if he repaid the tax owed, which is what he ended up doing. If he had been deported, 150 people would have lost their jobs instantly so we're not the people the authorities are after."

In the complex world of American work contributions Donncha can register insurance policies and tax accounts through the business and even managed to secure a mortgage as a 'foreign investor'.

As we talk, his mind wanders to his home village and his family.

"You know, I often go on the Google street-viewer to take a 'virtual' walk up the road home to my mother's house," he tells me.

Now he firmly believes that change is on the horizon but explains the family has a back-up plan should Obama's efforts fall short.

"We've been told that when our daughter Ciara is 21 she can sponsor Siobhan and I to stay here. It's another seven years of looking over our shoulder but perhaps it's the safest option for us", he says.

Siobhan concurs: "So let's say we give all our details to the government, hold our hands up and say, 'here we are' and then there's a change of administration or policy, aren't we totally exposed? We have a lovely home, a good business, the children are happy and life is good - I sometimes think we'd be crazy to risk all of that."

Despite being here for nearly 20 years Siobhan still speaks with a strong and lyrical Louth accent.

"My father passed away six years ago and I wasn't able to attend the funeral. I'd been home a couple of years before he died; I was able to travel back on my maiden name and to New York again in my married name with a new passport. But the last time I was fingerprinted."

Read more: Homeward bound: The lost generation are returning home

On Monday the couple will attend a meeting in New York where Irish immigration support agency staff will aim to clarify issues with regard to the proposed reforms.

"In the past we discovered that the undocumented Irish in the US are slow about applying for visas sold to them as the solution to their immigration problems," says Ciaran Staunton from Mayo, who's been a long-time campaigner with the Irish Lobby for Immigration reform.

"Many fear that if they come forward they'll end up being deported and so the uptake of visas over the years has been relatively low. In contrast, they were many living at home in Ireland who applied for the likes of the Donnelly (1989) and Morrison (1990) visas chancing their luck and getting a visa before coming over".

Lobbyists such as Ciaran have been campaigning for decades for full legal rights for Irish people to live and work in the US.

"We'll keep going until the legislators create a path for Irish people to come here and contribute without fear of being arrested and sent home", he says.

While he's acknowledges that President Obama's reform proposals are a significant step in the right direction, he's seen many false dawns in the past.

"Those who promised these programmes which would "end the nightmare" for the undocumented Irish are long gone… but that undocumented community are still here", he says.

To qualify for the latest reforms, the undocumented immigrants have to have lived illegally in the US for more than five years and have children who are US citizens.

Read more: The Irish expats living the dream in New York City

So you could have two women who arrived here on the same day and who both got married. One might have had a child over five years ago but the other, for biological reasons, couldn't. Under these measures one woman is protected, the other isn't - how is that fair?" asks Ciaran, pointing out that the Irish LGBT community in America are also being discriminated against.

He said the undocumented Irish contribute to the economy and come here to work.

"The Irish don't cross the Atlantic with their hands held out, they come with their sleeves rolled up," he says.

Ciaran believes that Kevin O'Malley, the recently appointed American Ambassador to Ireland, also has a very significant role to play on the issue of the undocumented Irish in America.

"In relation to the 10-year ban, for those deported, it is possible for American Ambassadors to have this ban waived, it has happened a lot elsewhere and we need to know if Mr O'Malley can intervene in cases on behalf of Irish people as well," he says.

Obama's actions include a provision that will make it easier for some undocumented immigrants to return to their home countries in times of hardship.

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Local Police will no longer be asked to contact immigration agencies when someone runs a red light or turns the wrong way on the highway.

The Taoiseach contacted President Obama this week to tell him that "your actions… will transform millions of lives…I share your ardent hope that Congress may now proceed to enact comprehensive reforms".

These rule changes could potentially help half of the undocumented Irish community in the US, some claim perhaps even more given the profile of Irish migrants to America down through the years.

For Ciara and Harry the prospect that one day they will board a plane at JFK airport destined for Shannon with their parents sitting by their side is now much more realistic and exciting.

"I'm starting to believe that finally I will be able to walk in the door of my house in Kerry to see my mother and family with my wife and children," says Donncha, adding with a smile, "now wouldn't that be something?"

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