Undocumented Irish urged to remain calm after Boston arrest

Department says number of deported Irish has not risen under Trump administration

The Department of Foreign Affairs has urged undocumented Irish in the US "to remain calm" after a prominent Donegal man living illegally for 18 years in Boston was arrested for immigration violations.

John Cunningham (38), who has been undocumented in the US since 1999, was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials at a private residence in Boston on Friday.

Mr Cunningham, a native of Glencolmcille and a prominent member of the Irish community and the GAA in Boston, is being held in a detention centre in the city awaiting deportation to Ireland.

A spokesman for ICE said that Mr Cunningham had breached the terms of the US visa waiver programme by staying beyond the 90-day limit in which visitors can remain in the country without a visa.


Mr Cunningham had a high public profile in the Boston area as an undocumented immigrant and an active member of the Irish-American community in the city. He was interviewed in an RTÉ Prime Time programme broadcast last March on life as an undocumented immigrant in the US.

Sweeping crackdown

His arrest and impending deportation has alarmed other unauthorised residents in Massachusetts who fear a sweeping crackdown by the Trump administration on illegal immigrants.

Since taking office, US president Donald Trump has taken a more aggressive stance on illegal immigrants by signing executive orders that expand the authority of individual immigration officers.

Under president Barack Obama, immigration officers prioritised enforcement against undocumented immigrants who threatened public safety or committed serious criminal offenses.

Mr Trump has expanded the definition of “criminal”, handing more power to individual immigration officers to take enforcement action and expanding the pool of potential targets for deportation.

Seeking to reassure Irish living in the US, the Department of Foreign Affairs said that the Irish embassy in Washington had been in close contact with US authorities and that the number of deportations of Irish citizens by ICE agents to date this year has not increased compared to recent years.

The department advised concerned Irish citizens to stay in touch with their local consulate and immigration centre and, if necessary, to consult with an immigration lawyer.

Consular assistance

Mr Cunningham is receiving consular assistance from the Irish consulate in Boston.

"We are aware of a number of arrests of Irish citizens who have come to the attention of the US immigration authorities," said the department in response to queries from The Irish Times.

“We are conscious of the understandable concern amongst the Irish community in the US, as there is in others, given developments under the new administration.”

Illegal immigrants can, in certain so-called “sanctuary” cities and states, lead relatively normal lives, buying property, starting businesses and applying for driving licences as city and state officials are directed not to report unauthorised immigrants if caught for minor offences to US federal immigration officers.

Mr Trump has pledged to crack down on these cities and states, which include Boston.

Coming to terms

Mr Cunningham's parents, John and Mary Cunningham, live at Teelin, near Glencolmcille. John's younger brother Brian said they were still coming to terms with his arrest.

Brendan Byrne, who was a year ahead of Mr Cunningham in school in Donegal, said: “He was always a person committed to causes and there are so many Irish people in limbo as illegal immigrants out in the US that he probably felt he should speak out. He was always a very brave person.”

Mr Byrne, a former Donegal county councillor, said Mr Cunningham gave “a big chunk of his life” to America.

“When you give so many years of your life to a city as he did to Boston, you would think there may be some way you could get citizenship.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times