Higgins voices support for undocumented Irish in US

President hears heart-rending cases of emigrants unable to return to Ireland

President Michael D Higgins, his wife Sabina  and Governor of Illinois Pat Quinn. Photograph: Shane O’Neill

President Michael D Higgins, his wife Sabina and Governor of Illinois Pat Quinn. Photograph: Shane O’Neill


Simon Carswell in Chicago

Sandra hasn’t seen her father in Ireland for seven and a half years. She and her husband Neil emigrated to Chicago from Buncrana in 1995 after they were laid off by the Fruit of the Loom plant in Co Donegal.

Their two children, aged 10 and 7, have never been to Ireland. As illegal immigrants in the US, they are unable to visit family and friends at home in case they cannot return.

“If we could just get a pass to go home to see our parents,” said Neil.

Sandra’s nephew was one of the eight young men killed in a car crash in Co Donegal in July 2010.

“I was the only one from my family who wasn’t at the funeral – it was heart-breaking,” she said. “It was the worst week I have experienced since we came here,” added Neil.

The couple live in hope that US politicians will pass long-stalled reforming immigration legislation putting them on a path to legalisation or citizenship. Pointing to the ludicrousness of their situation right now, Sandra said: “The only option is to get a divorce and marry an American.”

This Irish family were among a group of “undocumented” Irish who met President Michael D Higgins on the third day of his second official visit to the United States.

The meeting was organised by the Chicago Irish Immigrant Support group at the Irish American Heritage Centre on Chicago’s North Side, which helps the estimated 5,000 illegal Irish in the Chicago area, out of an estimated 50,000 across the US. The President said that of the €12 million spent on the Irish aboard, the Government has provided €1.5 million to Irish living in this region.

Mr Higgins paid tribute to Irish community groups for “providing shelter” to the undocumented who are “living in the shadows.”

Yesterday, the President spoke with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, about their shared concerns about immigrants in the state and the wider United States. They discussed the benefits of changes introduced in the state last year that allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licences.

Mr Quinn, whose great-grandfather came from Ireland, is a strong proponent of immigration reform and the measure, estimated to affect about 250,000 unlicensed migrants, has significantly reduced the risk of an undocumented Irish person being deported over a minor traffic offence committed in the state.

President Higgins told The Irish Times that there needed to be further sufficient change to “enable people who are already paying taxes to come into full participation [in American society].”

Mr Higgins said that he had “a very definite impression” that there was going to be significant progress made on US immigration reform. “The politics of it has changed now,” he said.

As US elections approach, politicians “won’t be able to ignore the immigration issue,” he said, noting how any political scientist can see the internal debate within the Republican Party on the issue. “The traction on the ground for support seems to be looking in better shape than it has been in some time.”

Speaking at a business breakfast hosted by the philanthropic American Ireland Fund, Mr Higgins thanked the Irish-American community for supporting Ireland following a financial crisis that has created a new wave of Irish emigrants.

“We are intent on learning the chastening lessons of the recent past and we are determined to build a future together in which all citizens can participate,” he told them.

Later, in the keynote address of his trip, to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a public policy think-tank, Mr Higgins returned to a recurring theme – the need, following crisis, to “rethink some of the basic building blocks of economics” based on ethics and environmental sustainability.

“The time has come for a new spring of economic thinking,” he said.

Sandra and Neil almost enjoyed a new spring in their own lives. During Ireland’s erstwhile economic boom they put their house in Chicago up for sale with a view to returning to Co Donegal.

“The Irish economy went down hill,” said Neil. “It was so bad that we stayed.”

Now they, along with thousands of other illegal Irish in Chicago and elsewhere in the US, continue to live in the shadows, and in limbo.