The endorsement by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party of the new Programme for Government on Friday, June 26, was a historic occasion for a variety of obvious reasons. One of the lesser discussed reasons is the commitment in the programme to regularise the status of undocumented migrants in Ireland.
Today's world is home to tens of millions of undocumented migrants, individuals present without permission in a country that is not their country of citizenship. Undocumented migration is the result of a complex set of factors, including the availability of work in destination states, lack of opportunity in countries of origin, and the failure of states to align their immigration systems with the realities of international migration by providing adequate channels for legal migration.
The presence of undocumented migrants is a lose-lose situation. Such migrants will often be afraid to approach the authorities if they fall victim to crime. They may avoid accessing healthcare services until an illness becomes acute, creating a health risk not just for themselves, but for the wider community. They will be unable to provide a stable, supportive environment for their children. They will be slow to seek redress through official channels when exploited in the workplace.
This is all because they fear that contact with the authorities may lead to deportation. This creates a situation where the trust essential for effective policing is eroded, the health of the community at large is put at risk, innocent children suffer disadvantages that have lifelong consequences, and unscrupulous employers enjoy an advantage over competitors who play by the rules.
The NGO Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), long at the forefront of efforts to address the plight of the undocumented in Ireland, estimates the country currently hosts up to 26,000 such migrants. Many of them have been here for more than five years, putting down roots, working, and raising children who have known life in no other country apart from Ireland. Regularisation will give legal recognition and protection to their membership of Irish society and will remove the threat of deportation that makes them vulnerable.
The Government can ensure the success of its regularisation initiative by learning from the mistakes that undermined past regularisation efforts in Ireland and countries around the world.
Firstly, it is important that the regularisation initiative promised in the new Programme for Government is put on a permanent footing. Introducing a one-off time-bound scheme that accepts applications only until a specified future date may reduce the current undocumented population, but will do nothing to address the situation of future undocumented migrants. Undocumented migration is a reality of the contemporary globalised world. It is a reality that can be proactively addressed by ambitious policy action, instead of reactive stopgap measures.
Secondly, an energetic awareness-raising campaign is needed to ensure information about the new "pathways" to legal status reaches the target group, some of whom may be socially isolated and reluctant to have contact with State officials. This will require direct engagement with migrant communities and support organisations and provision of informational material in a variety of languages.
To reduce the understandable reluctance of undocumented migrants to provide detailed personal information to State officials, any regularisation initiative should be accompanied by a "firewall", a guarantee that the personal data of applicants will not be used for purposes of immigration control and enforcement. Many individuals will refrain from applying for regularisation if they fear that an unsuccessful application may result in deportation.
Thirdly, to shrink Ireland's population of undocumented migrants as far as possible, any new pathway to legal status should be subject to minimal eligibility criteria. Reasonable criteria would include a requirement for applicants to have been present in the State for a specified minimum period of time, say four years, and the absence of a serious criminal record. Other eligibility criteria, such as previous lawful presence or past possession of a work permit, would severely restrict the pool of potential applicants and thereby undermine the effectiveness of a new regularisation initiative.
Fourthly, the Government should avoid using regularisation as a revenue-generating device. Application fees for regularisation should be set at a rate that covers the administrative costs involved, and should not be so high as to have the practical effect of preventing otherwise eligible candidates from submitting applications.
Finally, for regularisation to be meaningful, it must provide successful applicants with a residence permit which, even if initially temporary, is easily renewable.
Time spent in the State on such permits should be reckonable towards long-term residence and, ultimately, citizenship. Ireland should avoid the mistake of countries that provided short-term legal status to undocumented migrants and then allowed them to fall back into irregular status, essentially defeating the purpose of the initial regularisation.