Undocumented: the paperless Christmas

Three illegal Irish workers in the US, and three undocumented immigrants in Ireland, describe the harsh realities of living an unofficial life


‘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.”

The stalling of a cross-party Senate bill in the Republican-led House of Representatives that would put an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants on a “path to citizenship” has left Mary disgusted by politicians and angry with President Obama.

“I was banking on everything that this would happen, hoping that it would happen, that they would pass the immigration reform this year,” she says. “I don’t know whether to stay or pack up and head back. If I head home I don’t know what I am heading back to. It is a decision that a lot of us are going to have to think about.”

A couple of years ago Allan Danou, from the Philippines, took a job as a housekeeper for an elderly man in a rural community in Ireland. “He needed someone to look after the house, to garden, cook and clean for him for €250 a week.” The “garden” bit was misleading. “He brought me to this huge graveyard and told me to start [weeding]. I said, ‘Are you sure about this?’ He had a contract with the authorities to look after it . . . It was freezing. I didn’t have the clothes for it.” He left a few days later.

Allan has worked in low-paid caring jobs in Ireland since 2009. In the Philippines, he has two teenage boys; he was a dancer and had his own entertainment company. Being a carer, he says, is very different.

When his business failed he came to Ireland. At first he came to help his sister, who is a nurse, look after his nephew, who had leukaemia. He currently looks after an elderly woman. “They’re a nice family,” he says. He doesn’t earn a lot, but it’s significantly more than he could earn at home. He sends everything he can to his family.

But Allan can’t visit them for fear that he couldn’t then return to Ireland. He gets upset talking about his older sister, who was recently diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. The day before we meet was his younger son’s 16th birthday. Allan sent a message saying, “I wish I could spend this special day with you.”

They talk regularly on Skype. “I’m always thinking, Is this the right way to raise my kids? But I’m doing this for them.”

And, beyond the separation anxiety, life here is stressful. He avoids hospitals and the Garda. He has friends – some documented, some not – but it’s a world of paranoia. Rumours go around about deportations. Certain areas, he says, seem to become “hot spots” for immigration officers.

He hopes for some sort of regularised status. He would like to be able to open up to people, but in the past people have threatened him with exposure. “They were . . . ” He pauses to choose his words. “. . . Power-tripping.”

In giving his full name and agreeing to be photographed for this story, Allan is risking his anonymity. His is doing it because “we need to get out from under the fear”. This will be his fourth Christmas here. “The first two were most difficult. But I’m getting used to the loneliness.”

Gavin, who is 26 and from Co Kildare, has been working as a carpenter in Boston for just over two years. He moved to the US when work dried up in the construction industry at home.

He earns about $1,000 (€740) a week, roughly double what he earned in Ireland when there was work here. He doesn’t reveal to employers that he is illegal in case they try to take advantage of him or refuse to pay him. His limbo status means he cannot sue.

“A lot of the people around me are Irish, and they are in the same boat, so I never feel like a second-class citizen. You get the odd slur now and again, and you can do nothing about it.”

Gavin knows he takes a risk driving outside Massachusetts to states where he is unfamiliar with the traffic laws. He can’t get a US licence, so he still uses his Irish one.

Several months ago he was stopped by a police officer for a traffic offence. He lied to the officer, saying he had not got around to getting a US licence. He received a citation but so far has not received notification of a court date. He thinks he has been lucky this time.

“When I was stopped I didn’t panic. I was thinking that I would either get home to south Boston or home to Ireland. It wasn’t a nice feeling,” he says.

Gavin worries about the high cost of medical care without health insurance. He also has worrying thoughts, such as what would happen to him if he were beaten up outside a nightclub.

During his time in the US his illegal status has prevented Gavin visiting home. He missed his father’s 50th birthday, his only niece’s Communion and the funerals of friends’ parents. A number of his pals have married and had children, making him feel even more removed.

“The risk at the end of the day is I will never be allowed back in here . . . It is opening a door coming out here, but as soon as you overstay your visa it is closing a door.”

Seventeen-year-old Isabella comes across as a well-spoken Irish schoolgirl. But she is different from her classmates. Isabella is too scared to apply for a driving licence. It is unlikely that she will go to university, because she would have to pay the fees for non-EU students.

Isabella has been in Ireland since she was nine. As we talk she helps her Brazilian mother, Maria – these are not their real names – find English words to explain the furtive, underground life they’ve lived since coming here, at the height of the boom.

Maria and her husband, Daniel, came in 2004 and began to work in a string of low-paid jobs. “We came to work,” says Maria. Employers rarely asked for documents in those days, she adds, although they often do now. The following year Isabella joined them, because “being apart was too difficult”, and then Ireland became home.

They both managed to get student visas, but in 2009 they were questioned at the airport. “We told them we had a daughter here, and they said, ‘Students can’t have dependents.’ ” The immigration official told them they needed to enrol Isabella in private rather than public school. Hoping this would help them get their visas renewed, they did so. “We used all our savings.”

Their visas were not renewed. Worried about deportation, the family moved. Since then they have lived in the shadowy world of the undocumented. Daniel, a lawyer by training, is a cleaner. Maria works as a childminder.

Her employer is lovely, she says – it was she who first put her in touch with Migrant Rights Centre Ireland – but they are constantly worried. They worry about being stopped at police checkpoints and about getting sick, because they can’t afford hospital fees and are not entitled to free healthcare.

The most difficult thing, however, is being separated from their family. “My grandad passed away two years ago,” says Isabella. “We couldn’t visit him, because we couldn’t come back here.”

They have good friends, but few know about their undocumented status. “They don’t ask,” says Isabella. “What are they going to say? ‘Are you illegal?’ ” She feels as if she has two identities. She feels Irish at school and Brazilian at home. “But when we say we might have to go back to Brazil, she cries,” says Maria. “That’s not a Brazilian. That’s a little Irish girl.”

Back in Chicago, 38-year-old Gerry describes how he has not been back to Ireland since 2000. Like others interviewed here, he knows that if he returns to Ireland, he risks not being able to get back into the US. He would face a 10-year ban for overstaying a visa and re-entering illegally.

Gerry would love to bring his wife and three-year-old son back to Ireland, and to attend his brother’s wedding in Australia in 2015. He reckons he would be the only member of his family to travel – it is too far for those at home – but he would need Congress to put the undocumented on a path to citizenship first.

Running a construction business and coaching children’s soccer in the evenings, Gerry drives more slowly than he used to, and leaves himself extra time when driving out of state for work or for soccer games. The last thing he wants is to be pulled over for speeding.

“You would always be watching your back,” he says. “You mightn’t think you are, but you are.”

Migrant Rights Centre Ireland estimates that between 26,000 and 30,000 undocumented people live in Ireland. Some are children and families. Others are separated from their families.

People from outside the EU have a limited number of ways to work in Ireland. If they have student visas they can work up to 20 hours a week. Alternatively, an employer can apply for a work permit for a specific employee. In recent years these have been granted less readily. This system “gives the employer a lot of power” over undocumented workers, says Edel McGinley, the deputy director of the centre. To gain long-term residency rights, people need to work here with a permit for five years – or, if they are in high-skilled jobs, for two years.

Migrant Rights Centre Ireland is running a Justice for the Undocumented campaign that includes, from 9am next Wednesday, a 24-hour vigil at the Dáil. It would like to see a system of “earned regularisation” whereby people who have been here without documentation can come forward, pay a fine and earn residency over a five-year period.

The Government has stepped up lobbying efforts in Washington during the past year, raising with Democrat and Republican politicians the plight of an estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish people in the US.

Irish politicians and diplomats have pressed for legislation that would make citizens of about 11 million illegal immigrants in the US, including the Irish.

Here, the State every year deports or forces the voluntary return of hundreds of foreigners who have arrived illegally in Ireland from countries outside the European Economic Area.

There is a stark contradiction in the Government’s policies towards the plight of migrants, foreign nationals in Ireland and that of the Irish people living illegally in the US.

McGinley says successive Irish governments have ignored undocumented people living in Ireland while lobbying for the undocumented Irish in the US.

“It is a hypocritical situation,” she says. “We need to clear up our own system and look after people at home to give credibility to our efforts in the US.”

Ireland and the US continue to deport migrants, though at sharply different rates. Three hundred and two people were deported from Ireland last year, at a cost of €578,000, according to the Department of Justice.

The US department of homeland security says there were 409,849 “removals” – deportations – last year, the most in five years, including 51 to Ireland. Relative to their populations, the US deported about 22 times more foreign nationals than Ireland did last year.

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