Illegal Irish fear fallout after New York explosion
Subway incident adds to increased nervousness among undocumented immigrants
A New York policeman stands guard in Times Square not far from the site of a pipe bomb explosion on December 11th. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images
The word that an explosive device had gone off on the New York subway spread instantaneously through Manhattan on Monday, reviving fears of the September 11th attacks 16 years ago.
For some Irish living illegally in New York, however, one of the first thoughts was not about the consequences of the explosion itself, but rather a desperate hope that the attacker was an American, not an immigrant.
“Days like today, it makes it harder, you just hope it is someone from here, preferably white, otherwise it just helps the [Trump] agenda,” says one 39-year-old Irish illegal.
Speaking shortly after the failed attack at 42nd Street, the Irish man, who cannot be identified, looked on as New York police swarmed to every station on the city’s network.
The security blanket by the NYPD was designed to reassure the public, to make it clear that the authorities were in control. And it did, but it also terrified anyone living illegally in the city.
“I know it’s nonsense and it’s in my head, but I am nervous and then I think they will spot that and think, ‘What’s the story with your man? Better check him out’, and boom, that’s game over for me. I’d be on a plane in 24 hours,” says the man, whom we shall call Michael. He came to the US on a 90-day visa waiver programme a decade ago and stayed on afterwards, living in the shadows ever since.
The waiver means he has no right to due process if he is caught. He will be deported very quickly once they do some rudimentary checks. If he is particularly unlucky he could spend time in jail while his papers are examined.
Besides asking not to be named, he asks me not to say where we met, or how we met. However, he does not look like a haunted man. He is funny and prosperous-looking.
Michael has a long-term girlfriend and a daughter. He will not say what their status is, though in all probability his child was born in the US and thus would be entitled to citizenship.
“It has changed a lot in a year. I am lucky at work, I’m kind of the boss’s right-hand man and he knows the score and there are arrangements that can be made,” he says.
“But at the same time, if we fell out or if he got sick or wanted to sell the business, I would find it very hard to get another job that would pay me the same money.”
The nervousness felt by Irish illegals has increased following news that there has been a sharp increase in the number of illegal Irish being detained by US immigration officials in the Boston area, according to sources within the Irish-American community.
The crackdown on illegal immigration has intensified in the past three months, and the number of Irish deported from across the US since the Trump administration took power has risen to 34 from 26 last year, according to the most recent deportation figures, released last week.
There have been 33,366 more arrests of illegal immigrants by US immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) officials across the US this year, representing a 30 per cent increase.
Michael has read the Boston statistics. He is not surprised. “I know a lot of people in my situation, who are just packing it in and moving home. It is getting too hard now.
“We are on a knife edge and there is no real sign of any kind of . . . ” his voice trails off as he searches for a word. I finish his sentence with “hope”. He scoffs at the idea.
“Hope was Obama’s thing. This crowd though . . . Now, look, day to day it’s not too bad. I mean, I have money coming in, we are comfortable, we have a good life, Christmas will be grand, we will go skiing, you know? But when you lift your head and look forward it is not so great,” he tells The Irish Times.
Siobhan Dennehy is executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Centre in Woodside in Queens, the place anxious families call when they fear someone has been picked up by ICE.
Dennehy has not noticed the same kind of spike in detentions by ICE in New York as has been reported in Boston.
“Our experience is what causes them to be picked up is either completely random or very specific,” she tells The Irish Times, in her office a few blocks from the Woodside subway station.
The random things are frighteningly random: a traffic accident, a complaint from a neighbour or a complaint about a neighbour’s noise, even a speeding ticket.
Each of them is mundane, but each is fraught with danger for someone who is trying to live below the radar – paying taxes, most likely, but living in the shadow-world of the illegal.
Sometimes they fall foul of the authorities because a criminal record from home finally catches up with them, or they are reported to homeland security by someone who knows they are illegal.
However, the news from Ireland is stopping some from leaving today, says Dennehy. “Housing is a huge concern. You can’t find a place to live where there might be work and there is no work where you can live.
“A move home now for people who have been here for a long time is a real leap in to the unknown.”
In Seán Óg’s bar nearby, it’s happy hour, and there is a hockey game on TV and Bruce Springsteen on the jukebox. I sit at the bar and get chatting to a man in a peaked cap with a Shamrock medallion.
This is Dan Sugrue, an MTA construction manager, second-generation Irish, his recently deceased mother from north Co Donegal. I ask him about the recent evidence of a crackdown in Boston and he says there is nothing like that in Queens. People in Woodside and nearby Maspeth talk all the time and if it was going on he would know. “Any time someone you know is picked up it is big news in the community. It’s not happening.”
Niamh Connolly from Sligo is behind the bar. She has been in New York seven years, and many of her friends are undocumented.
“At the beginning of the administration, when the first travel ban was introduced, there was consternation, they were really rattled, but it has settled down. People are just getting on with it.”
She does know people who have decided to go home, but this is more because they are “over” their desire to live in New York rather than anything else.
Nick Traine is in the bar too. He has Irish and Sicilian blood on his father’s side and Romanian blood on his mother’s. He was born in Romania while his mother, an American citizen at the time, was imprisoned by the regime there.
He works as a paramedic. He thinks that the undocumented Irish might be able to fly under the radar more easily in New York, as there is such a diverse population of immigrants. Unlike in Boston, there is no evidence of a targeted campaign against Irish immigrants in New York that he could make out.
For him, immigration is all about assimilating into the culture, making it your own. He feels that the immigration policy in the US is long due an overhaul.
“Immigration has made this country what it is, but maybe we need to look at it again, be a little more choosy, not on race or religion but willingness to assimilate, to learn the language, participate in American life. Maybe a probationary period of one year and a test at the end. If you pass you are in, if not, well, there is always someone else who will want it more than you,” he says.