What started for Caitlin Vennard and her husband Cormac McGrady as late-night fun on a beach holiday ended with his deportation from the US, after three months in prison sharing time with murderers and other hardened criminals.
The couple, she from Massachusetts and he from Co Down, experienced the full brunt of the aggressive and inflexible US immigration system in 2013. It is a threat that hangs over millions of illegal immigrants, including thousands of Irish, and many who would benefit from President Obama's executive actions blocking millions of deportations if his measures weren't tied up in the courts.
McGrady (41), as the husband of an American citizen Vennard (30), was in the middle of applying for a green card that would allow him to remain in the US when they were arrested.
In July 2013 they were working in Washington DC, where they had met in 2009 while working at an Irish bar, and were on holiday in Rehoboth Beach in nearby Delaware.
“We had a few too many beers and decided on the way back to the hotel to go for a skinny dip. It was just silly,” said Vennard.
Police spotted them and they were arrested, brought to a prison in Georgetown, Delaware and separated.
While being held, Vennard felt relieved at the time that her husband’s green card was being processed. McGrady had returned to the US in September 2012 on a 90-day tourist visa waiver and the couple were married three months later. In the following months he got a driving licence and a social security number, allowing him to work legally.
He was awaiting details of an arrest in New York city in 2001 in order to secure his green card. That involved another minor incident. He was on holiday with a friend and they were arrested after buying a homeless man beer. Their lawyer told them the arrest wasn’t a problem, but they needed the record for the green card.
After months of trying, they couldn’t find the record and were awaiting the results of a fingerprint search at a time of their arrest.
In the Georgetown jail, Vennard, concerned about her husband, asked where he was. “That British guy” – McGrady was travelling on a British passport – “you were brought in with, he has been deported and you better stop asking questions about him,” the guard replied. She was shocked. Vennard was released the next day. McGrady was held in Delaware for four nights. He was put in a cell with a long-serving sex offender and spent his time there frozen with fear, unable to eat or do anything.
“It was pretty scary. Whenever I entered the cell, he was standing with trousers around his ankles. It was probably an intimidation tactic he learned over the years,” said McGrady.
When the US Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) ran his name, they saw his green card application had been rejected. They also noticed that he had failed to complete community service from his 2001 arrest (he had returned home at the end of that holiday) and earmarked him for deportation, sending him to a prison in
Their lawyers argued that it had been denied in error because they were unable to locate the arrest record and, regardless, he was married to a US citizen. (The fingerprint check by ICE found McGrady was mistakenly booked in his 2001 arrest under his middle name Patrick.)
On October 18th, 2013, he was taken by two police officers to Dulles Airport near Washington and flown to London.
As for the skinny dipping, the district attorney in Delaware dropped the charges at a court date 10 days before his deportation, after the couple’s lawyer told them what had come of that incident. According to Vennard, the prosecutor had “never heard of something so bizarre”.
“That [arrest] led to Cormac being in prison in a federal jail for three months. At the end it was so easy to wipe all this off the record. It was expunged. It is just really frustrating,” she said.
McGrady accepts there are laws in countries that must be obeyed and that he does “stupid things from time to time”, but felt his punishment was unfair and grossly disproportionate to the offence. “It was pure over the top, ridiculous,” he said.
The couple now live in Galway. Cormac is banned from re-entering the US because he breached the 90-day visa waiver.
“It was the most horrible experience of my life,” he said. “I would love it to be an option to return, just purely because of Caitlin – her family is there, we have good friends there. If anything happens in Caitlin’s family, I am not able to go.”
His green card is still pending. “It is just another piece of paper on some federal employee’s desk,” said Vennard. “You want to be optimistic but you have to move on with life.”