A scheme to regularise thousands of undocumented migrants has been welcomed as “historic” and a “cause for celebration”, though migrants’ advocates warn it must be implemented fairly and any anomalies addressed.
Concerns were also raised about the cost of availing of it – €550 for individuals and €700 for families.
The scheme, details of which were announced on Friday by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, will be open to all undocumented migrants who have spent at least four years in the State without immigration status, or three years in the case of those with children.
While there is no data on the exact number of undocumented people in the country, it is estimated that up to 17,000 people, including 3,000 children, may be eligible for the scheme.
The regularisation scheme will open in January and run for six months. Applicants must meet standards regarding good character and criminal records, and be deemed to not pose a threat to the State. Migrants with convictions for minor offences will not be disqualified solely for this reason.
People who have an existing deportation order can also apply if they meet the residence requirement. Those with expired student visas still living in Ireland without immigration status will be entitled to apply.
The Migrants Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI), which initiated the Justice For the Undocumented (JFU) campaign in 2010, said the scheme would “transform thousands of people’s lives”.
Neil Bruton, MRCI development officer on the JFU campaign, said: "This is an absolutely historic day for undocumented people. After 11 years of campaigning for this, it is going to allow people to stay safely here, live normal lives and without fear.
“It will mean things that are simple and basic for us but which have been difficult and dangerous for an undocumented person, will be possible – things like reporting a crime, accessing healthcare, accessing quality housing.
“Even building friendships is difficult for an undocumented person because they would fear being totally honest with people about their lives and who they are. So there is huge isolation for undocumented people.”
A key challenge now would be to ensure all undocumented people knew about the scheme and were supported to apply, he said.
“We look forward to working with the Minister for Justice to build on this progressive approach to immigration reform in the future,” said Mr Bruton.
Brian Killoran, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, congratulated those undocumented people who had campaigned for many years for a scheme like this.
“It will be profoundly transformative to the lives of thousands of individuals and families, including children born here in Ireland who have never known any other home.
“While we are delighted at the inclusive nature of the scheme there are challenges we feel should be addressed. These include the particularly high [and potentially prohibitive] application fees for the scheme for undocumented individuals and families, given the vulnerability of many migrants in these groups… Many of the potential applicants of the scheme may struggle… given the shadow nature of their employment conditions. We are disappointed in the State’s omission of any financial hardship exemptions for the application costs.
“We also urge the Department of Justice to address any anomalies arising from the scheme in a fair and consistent manner.
"For example, long-term undocumented persons who have applied for residence prior to the scheme may have received a limited Stamp 1 decision previously, but under the new scheme may now be entitled to the robust Stamp 4 permissions. It is important that all of these potential cases are reviewed and addressed appropriately," said Mr Kiloran.
The council welcomed the scheme being open for six months and said communicating its details in different languages would be essential.
The scheme was welcomed too by the Green Party, which said it would “open doors and opportunities for thousands of people to step out of the shadows and allow them to be full members of the society they have already contributed to”.