Recognising reality

Undocumented citizens

 

How to give some foreign migrants, who entered Ireland legally on visas in recent years but who have remained here and become undocumented, an opportunity to regularise their status is a challenge facing the Department of Justice. The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI) has drawn up a detailed proposal on the matter which is being considered by the Department of Justice. It would be a one-off measure, with strict conditions attached, which if implemented could benefit an estimated 20,000 undocumented migrants. The proposal is described as offering a “problem-solving solution to an unsustainable situation”. And the plan marks a welcome change in attitude and approach by the department in dealing with foreign migrants. Up to now the Department has not favoured major initiatives to regularise the status of migrants. Instead, it has preferred to deal with this issue on an individual – case by case – basis.

Over many decades successive Irish governments have lobbied US presidents and politicians for a change in the status of the undocumented Irish in that country. Now the Government’s willingness to address a similar problem here, will both remove any charge of hypocrisy, and enhance its credibility in pressing the US for reform. In both countries – while the scale of the problem clearly differs – the experience of the undocumented remains broadly similar. As Helen Lowry of the MRCI has noted, undocumented men, women and children in both countries had the same struggles, hopes and dreams.

In Ireland, as in the US, the undocumented must work in the shadow economy; their access to public services remains difficult, and they cannot leave the country to visit their extended families. And, given their irregular legal status, some remain vulnerable, and may be subject to exploitation, but are fearful of invoking the law to secure their protection.

Any scheme to regularise the status of up to 20,000 undocumented migrants must also provide adequate reassurance to the rest of society, addressing concerns and fears. The proposed scheme, it is clear, would not be a general amnesty: its terms would be quite restrictive, and only those resident for four years would qualify for consideration, while those with a serious criminal conviction would be excluded. For applicants granted residency, a two-year probation period would apply, and during that time individuals would not have access to social security or social housing, but could earn their way to citizenship. A proposal that would benefit the migrants by regularising their legal status, benefit the State in the form of extra tax revenues from their employment, and benefit society generally by improved public security, law enforcement and compliance, has much to recommend it.

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