Amnesty for undocumented migrants a good start but more is needed

Move is welcome but it must go further to avoid ongoing discrimination and segregation

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee with members of the Justice for the Undocumented campaign outside Government Buildings. Photograph: Alan Betson

The new immigration policy for undocumented migrants announced earlier this month responded to more than a decade of campaigning by Justice for the Undocumented and organisations representing migrants such as the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland. It was also an objective for the Green Party in entering government.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee claims that the new policy “will bring some much-needed certainty and peace of mind to thousands of people who are already living here and making a valuable contribution to our society and the economy, many of whom may be very vulnerable due to their current immigration circumstances”. After her announcement The Irish Times noted that a third of undocumented migrants work as carers and in essential services that have become even more important during the pandemic.

McEntee’s announcement came less than 10 days after 27 migrants died when their boat sank as they attempted to cross the English Channel. Though the new policy in Ireland is very welcome, one lesson from those tragic deaths and continued political debate about migration in Europe and the US is that any regularisation process must be accompanied by other legislation focused on improving the type and nature of work that migrants often take, or rather, often are forced to take.

The Government should ensure that carer and frontline service jobs are standardised, better paid and offer opportunities to advance to even better roles. If this does not happen, the Government risks having legalised a workforce without altering its status in a meaningful way, creating the potential basis for continued discrimination and segregation.


The policy has been labelled as a “one-off amnesty” for undocumented migrants. It will grant immigration permission for undocumented migrants living here for three or four years, depending on family status, and allow unrestricted access to the labour market and pursuit of naturalisation. Asylum seekers with applications in process for at least two years will also be eligible to apply. At the same time, deportations will continue for those who do not meet the minimum criteria and applicants must “meet standards regarding good character and criminal record/behaviour and not pose a threat to the State”.

Though widely used in immigration policy around the world, the term “amnesty” often reflects a negative position. It intimates government forgiveness for an illegal status.

Opponents of legalising undocumented migrants accentuate this criminal dimension, stoking fears that migrants are not just stealing work away from the “native population” and weakening dominant cultural values but also actively engaging in lawless behaviour that undermines the social order.

Nigel Farage’s famous pre-Brexit referendum photo of Turkish migrants flooding the UK if it remained in the EU exemplifies this approach, which has been all too successful in struggling democracies. Would-be authoritarian leaders like Viktor Orban and Donald Trump have effectively made dehumanising migrants a tool for reinforcing power and public popularity.

The dehumanisation is doubly unjust; do not expect to be treated well but continue to take good care of our children and ageing relatives

Fortunately, Ireland has not experienced this kind of political machination, which is sometimes explicitly racist and malicious, not to mention threatening to human life.

Yet perpetuating the poor conditions in which our migrant population often work and live reflects a similar process of dehumanisation. Successive Irish governments have come to expect migrants, especially from non-EU/EEA countries, to fill gaps in the workforce created by poor public investment and bad policies in areas such as childcare and residential homes. They work for low wages and frequently live in poor housing with limited access to public and other services.

Ironically, care workers perform tasks that require extraordinary humanity if they are to be done right. So the dehumanisation is doubly unjust; do not expect to be treated well but continue to take good care of our children and ageing relatives.

Forthcoming research, conducted by Tasc in partnership with researchers in Spain, Greece and Germany, has found that childcare, home care and agricultural workers in all four countries suffer discrimination, exploitation and pervasive economic insecurity.

Because they are so socially marginalised, their working and living conditions rarely receive public attention. At the same time, national governments, following EU direction, continue to implement integration policies. Similar to the new Irish amnesty, integration largely consists of legalisation, language acquisition and access to the job market and services.

But the needs of migrants extend far beyond individual obligations to regularise their status and adapt to their new home through learning the language and finding a job. It also entails engaging in local and national social and civic life and developing social networks, which can be useful on a practical basis for finding more varied employment.

Unfortunately, the Irish and other governments offer few opportunities for this engagement, reinforcing patterns of social segregation and employment. Employers look for migrants to do care work and likewise, members of migrant communities know this is where they are most likely to find employment. The cycle is destined to continue without government intervention, as employers like creches or homecare agencies may lack the resources and power (and sometimes the motivation) to make substantial changes in working conditions and career options.

The Irish Government thus shares some of the same moral and practical issues regarding migrants as other governments, even if elsewhere the politicisation of the issue is far fiercer and more embedded in political divisions and tensions. The Irish Government has acknowledged the need to raise wages for childcare staff and for staff to see career opportunities in the industry. They must now do this for all care workers, as well as in other sectors characterised by a low wage, often migrant, workforce.

In addition to legal permission to live and work here, migrants in Ireland must be able to view a future that promises greater economic security, social status, and social networks, where social relations extend across ethnic and national identities. That would be good for them and good for the rest of Irish society.

Shana Cohen is director of Tasc, the think tank for social change