Dylan O'Riordan is 19 years old and is currently in the Suffolk County House of Corrections in the Boston area, due to be deported to Ireland this week.
Born in Galway, O'Riordan has lived in the US since his Green Card-carrying parents brought him there, aged 12. O'Riordan features in American network National Public Radio's influential and long-running flagship news programme, All Things Considered, this week.
His story is not an isolated case, points out NPR. “Irish visa overstayers have been swept up in the administration’s nationwide immigration dragnet” as part of the current US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s aggressive targeting of immigrants.
An spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told The Irish Times in December that ICE “targets any individual who is suspected of violating US immigration laws, with a focus on those who have criminal histories”.
The US crackdown on illegal immigration intensified towards the end of last year. There were over 33,000 more arrests of illegal immigrants generally across the US by ICE officials in 2017, a 30 per cent increase on the previous year. Estimates reckon up to 50,000 undocumented Irish live in the US, though it is a contested figure.
"There has been an increase in general detentions and deportations from the US, and there is great concern in the Irish community here," Ronnie Millar, executive director of the Irish International Immigrant Centre in Boston, told The Irish Times on Tuesday.
“It affects people’s security and stability here, and their sense of how permanent it all is. People are definitely concerned about ICE’s aggressive tactics.” The number of Irish deported from across the US between the Trump administration taking power in January and December 2017 was 34, up from from 26 in 2016, according to the most recent deportation figures released in December.
NPR spoke to O'Riordan - wearing "a lemon-yellow jail jumpsuit and a bewildered expression on his pale face" - in the visiting room at Suffolk County House of Corrections for its latest podcast.
“I was aware how with Trump immigration was going to get a lot harder, but I didn’t pay as much mind to it as I should have, which was my first mistake,” he told NPR.
O'Riordan's parents had Green Cards and lived in Massachusetts before he was born. They brought their 12-year-old child with them on the visa waiver programme when they moved back to the Boston area in 2010. The child overstayed his 90-day visa and continued to live an ordinary teenage life there, though he was unauthorised.
Four months ago he popped up on official radar because of an arrest which the county chose not to prosecute, and when he walked out of the holding cell, ICE agents were waiting for him, NPR reports, after someone in the courthouse tipped them off. He has been locked up since then.
“It seems as if ICE is collaborating with the courts and court officers and local law enforemcnt officials for tip offs,” Ronnie Millar told The Irish Times on Tuesday. “ This creates an environment where people are really concerned about their movement, their freedom to move around. It’s a bit scary.”
The NPR podcast points up the fate of undocumented Irish caught in Trump’s “immigration dragnet”, with ICE arresting more immigrants who have overstayed their visas, including the unauthorised Irish in Boston. Mexicans, Central Americans and Haitians account for 90 per cent of people deported from the US, but NPR’s analysis of year-end figures show deportations to the rest of the world have jumped 24 per cent.
Visitors from countries with a good relationship with the US don’t need visas, but don’t have a right to an immigration hearing if they stay past 90 days, and so they are at a disadvantage compared with immigrants who illegally cross the border.
Irish immigrants in the US are “definitely talking about returning home,” says Millar. “There’s a sense that it’s getting too hard to live here. Life can be hard enough and challenging enough, to keep a family together. When people learn about these dreadful deportation cases in Boston, some people feel enough is enough. We’re going to return.”
He says March is going to be a difficult time for immigrants generally in the US, with the potential end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). He says one million families may fall out of status in March - and this sends shockwaves through the immigrant community. “It is an anti-immigrant environment we are living in.”
In Dylan O’Riordan’s case, his peaceful life fell apart about four months ago. He had had a child with his girlfriend, Brenna, at age 19, and left high school to work for his uncle’s roofing company. One day he and Brenna got into an argument while shopping. “It was nothing at all,” he says on the NPR podcast. “Some woman called the cops, said I was abusing my girlfriend.”
He was arrested for domestic assault and battery, but Brenna denied she had been assaulted. The county chose not to prosecute and the judge let him go as he had no criminal record. But the incident drew attention from ICE.
O’Riordan says other detainees are surprised he was arrested. “They’re like, ‘Are you supposed to be here? You’re basically American. You look American; you sound American.’” O’Riordan says he is confined with 150 other men in a section of the county jail contracted to ICE.
“There’s a lot of people from El Salvador, a lot of Guatemalans, couple of Haitian people, and I’m the only Irish in the whole facility.”
A month ago, he and Brenna married in the jail chapel, she wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and he in his yellow ICE uniform. She plans to move to Ireland with their baby daughter, Delilah, and they hope their marriage will help him get a Green Card to return one day.
She says she is being forced out of her country just to be with her husband.
O'Riordan's lawyer, Tony Marino, told NPR he has argued his client was brought to the US when he was a child, but ICE is adamant. The Boston ICE office said in a statement to NPR that it is "apprehending all those in violation of immigration laws regardless of national origin". It said Dylan O'Riordan "overstayed the terms of his admission by more than seven years. ICE deportation officers encountered him in Sept 2017 after he was arrested on local criminal charges. ICE served him with an administrative final order of removal."
“Their position has been, well, he waived whatever rights he had when he came,” Marino told NPR. “Twelve-year-olds don’t waive rights! I’ve never seen anything like it. I can’t wrap my head around it.”
Other undocumented Irish have also fallen foul of the new rules in the past year, where anyone illegally in the US is a target, whether convicted of a crime or not. Millar has said that Irish immigrants are “on high alert”.
“We have definitely seen in Boston greater enforcement, and we are representing a number of individuals and we are supporting them as best we can. There is a deep, deep concern about the increased activity here.”
Last year John Cunningham (38), who had been living illegally in the US since 1999, was arrested by ICE officials at his home in Boston. The Donegal man was targeted for arrest because of the length of the overstay on his visa and an outstanding felony warrant. The electrician was the subject of two court actions over customer complaints. He had been living illegally in the US since 1999.
He was deported and is now back in Dublin, after living and working in Boston for 15 years. He appeared on an RTE Prime Time programme in March 2017 on the undocumented Irish. “ He was a good community leader,” said Millar of Cunningham. “He was very involved in his locality, paying all his taxes.”