Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, Dan Mulhall has warned the Irish in North America on short term visas to return home.
As Washington DC faces its third week of shutdown, it's been a busy time for the Irish embassy in the US capital.
For the 20-plus staff here there has been only one priority — getting Irish citizens in the US home.
“In a crisis like this only one thing really matters and that’s the welfare of Irish citizens,” says Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, Dan Mulhall, speaking by phone.
As one of Ireland's longest-serving diplomats, he is no stranger to crisis. As ambassador to Malaysia and Thailand in the early 2000s, he was in Kuala Lumper when the tsunami of 2004 hit.
But the specific challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic are different.
“Normally a consular situation is in one country or one region,” he says. “This is global. Irish people are everywhere in the world these days. It’s indicative of where we are as a country.”
The embassy has been encouraging Irish citizens who are normally resident in Ireland to return home. In particular, the focus is on citizens with short-term visas. While US embassies have suspended ESTAs, the 90-day visa-waiver typically used by tourists visiting America, thousands of Irish citizens are on short or longer-term work-related visas. And there are concerns about younger people on J1 visas. While the annual summer J1 programme has not yet started this year, there are more than a dozen other kinds of J visas which allow recent graduates and college students to live and work in America. These range from specific programmes for doctors, to a one-year programme that allows recent graduates to work in a field relevant to their studies.
While many J1 programme participants have already returned to Ireland, there are concerns that hundreds still remain in America and are reluctant to go home. As Mr Mulhall explains, there are three main reasons the Department of Foreign Affairs is encouraging those people to return.
“Firstly, there are flights from the US to Ireland at the moment, but we don’t know how long they will continue,” he says. “Secondly we don’t want people inadvertently overstaying their visa, storing up longer-term difficulties in the future. Finally, there are concerns about healthcare coverage.”
Another vulnerable group is undocumented Irish citizens. While many of these individuals are known to immigrant support groups around the country, for obvious reasons many have not contacted authorities, despite anecdotal evidence that some are continuing to work, for example on building sites.
The Irish embassy is also helping to repatriate Irish citizens on cruise ships. Up to ten Irish citizens are understood to be on the MS Zaandam which is currently en route to Florida having passed through the Panama Canal, though it is unclear if non-US citizens will be permitted to disembark.
One challenge is ensuring that Irish passengers docking in America have the required, temporary visas needed to land before transferring to a flight back to Europe.
The European Union’s mission in Washington is also playing a co-ordinating role in the repatriation of citizens, with some countries volunteering to take citizens from other EU countries on specific flights.
Ireland’s seven consulates across the United States are also heavily involved, with the consulate in Atlanta, for example, dealing with the myriad of issues arising in Florida from cruise ships.
Officials at the embassy in Washington are in constant contact via videoconference and phone with their colleagues in consulates across the country as well as with Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.
While most officials are working remotely, the embassy in Washington is opening at certain times to facilitate emergency services, for example, emergency passport issuance.
With the World Health Organisation warning that the US will become the next epicentre of the Covid-19 epidemic, the message from the Irish ambassador is clear.
“I myself was a J1 summer visa holder back in the 70s, and I know what a wonderful experience that was,” says Mr Mulhall. “But our best advice is that people should go home, and sooner rather than later.”