Undocumented: the paperless Christmas
Undocumented workers don’t go home for the holidays, for fear of being shut out of their new countries of residence. Three illegal Irish workers in the US, and three undocumented immigrants in Ireland, describe the harsh realities of living an unofficial life
Separation anxiety: a protester’s T-shirt at an anti-deportation demonstration in the US. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty
“We need to get out from under the fear”: Allan Danou, from the Philippines, who lives in Ireland. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Fighting Irish: campaigners after a protest in the US in 2007. Photograph: Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty
‘I was torn apart,” says Gerry, describing the morning his grandfather in Ireland died, in October last year, while Gerry spoke to him on Skype from Chicago. It was the toughest moment in the 18 years he has lived as an “undocumented” immigrant.
Gerry’s grandfather had visited him in the US every year around Thanksgiving until his illness stopped him travelling. Gerry’s family in Carrick-on-Suir, in Co Tipperary, initially weren’t going to tell him that his grandfather was ill: they knew it would devastate him. Eventually they told him.
Every morning Gerry cried going to work as a builder after talking to his grandfather on his computer. He prayed for two things: that his grandfather would get better and that he himself would get a green card.
Eventually his grandfather’s illness left him unable to talk, but Gerry kept calling, so his grandfather would recognise his voice.
He had travelled back to Ireland twice before, returning illegally both times through Canada. But if he travelled back for the funeral he risked not being able to get back into the US, where he has a wife and son.
“If I wasn’t married and did not have a family here I would have gone home. I was really bad. I was so close to him.” Instead his mother brought a laptop to the church so Gerry could watch the funeral via Skype.
Undocumented migrants in Ireland and in the US have much in common. They fear officialdom, are unable to access basic healthcare, welfare and educational services, and are vulnerable to abusive employers. They can’t travel, for fear of being unable to return, and are often connected to loved ones only through technology.
Although they have escaped unemployment in their home countries, fill gaps in labour markets, stimulate the economies of the countries they live in, often pay tax and send a lot of money home in subventions, they feel trapped.
Irene lives in Dublin. On the day we speak her father, who lives in the Philippines and whom she hasn’t seen for four years, is having an operation for throat cancer. She can’t visit him because she wouldn’t be able to return to Ireland, and her family need the money she earns here. “I’m the breadwinner,” she says. She’s crying as she tells her story.
Cancer has played a big part in Irene’s life. When she was younger she fell in love with an Irishman she worked with in Manila. When he was diagnosed with colon cancer, in 2008, he returned to Ireland, and she came to help look after him. “He was a very lovely man. Very kind.”
After he died, in 2009, she decided to stay here to earn money for her two children. “I’m a single mother, and I came from a very poor family. I send half of the money I earn to them.”
Irene currently lives with and looks after an elderly woman. She likes the work and likes the woman – her employer doesn’t know her status – but she hates the sense of isolation and fear that come with being undocumented.
Recently, she was sick for three weeks. “I was afraid to go to the hospital, because I know they would ask for a PPS number, and I don’t have any ID to show. I collapsed. Luckily my circle of friends helped me.”
She spends her free time talking to her children on Skype. Her elderly parents look after them. Her 12-year-old son is in a class for gifted children, and she is very proud. She’s saving for her children’s education. It’s hardest, she says, when they’re unwell. And her heart breaks when they ask her to come home.
Recently, after he was diagnosed with cancer, her father asked her to visit. Her voice cracks. “My family don’t know I’m undocumented,” she says. “I don’t want them to worry about me. I just say I can’t come, that I have to work. I’m the only one who can support them.”
Mary, a 40-year-old Irishwoman, has lived just outside New York for the best part of two decades and has never been home in that time. She doesn’t have a driving licence, because to get one you need a social-security number, which is a requirement to live a normal life in the US.
Mary – this is not her real name – never leaves the state of New York, because she has heard of so many undocumented Irish being caught while travelling around the US. She has no health insurance, which leaves her facing stratospheric medical costs if she ever gets sick. For that reason, if she is ever in an emergency, she is ready to give a false name or address.
Mary cannot get a bank account, because most banks want social-security numbers. She qualified as a hairdresser in Ireland but works as a carer for elderly people in the US. She needs a certificate in order to cut hair. “There is a roadblock on everything when you are illegal in this country,” she says.
She mostly fears being stopped by a police officer doing a routine search. “You are always watching your back in case you are pulled over by a cop.”
During her time in the US she has missed birthdays, weddings and funerals of family and friends in Ireland. Funerals are the hardest, she says. As an illegal immigrant Mary would not risk going home to Ireland and then not being allowed back into the US because she overstayed her time limit on a holiday visa 18 years ago.
“As the years go on, and as you get older and your parents get older, and you see how you cannot travel, that is when it hits you.”