Every St Patrick’s Day for more than a decade, while our politicians spread out across the globe for their annual display of soft power Irish-style, a small group of protesters have gathered in Dublin. In 2018, they posted 100 selfies online to raise awareness of the barriers they face in employment and education. In 2015, they draped a large green banner across a building on Dame Street with the message “Happy St Patrick’s Day to the undocumented in the USA from the undocumented in Ireland”. Last Friday, members of Justice for the Undocumented (JFU) gathered together again outside Leinster House. But this time, it was to celebrate.
The Government has announced that for six months from January, Ireland’s estimated 17,000 undocumented migrants, including 3,000 children, can apply to regularise their status here. The scheme is open to those who have spent at least four years in the State without immigration status, or three years in the case of those with children. It also includes a parallel process which will enable asylum seekers who have spent at least two years awaiting a decision on their international protection application to apply for regularisation.
The new scheme follows more than a decade of campaigning by JFU, the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI), and undocumented teenagers who recently began to speak out about the barriers they face in accessing third level education. Each St Patrick's Day, these campaigners watched as Irish politicians advocated for the rights of the Irish undocumented in the US without acknowledging their existence on Irish soil. "We're just like the Irish in the US," JFU campaigner Irene Jagoba told The Irish Times in 2020. "We work for our families and for a better life."
Nearly a third of undocumented migrants work as carers and have made up a hidden line of essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Operating outside the regulated work permit system leaves many at risk of exploitation by employers and landlords. Undocumented people often resist seeking medical or Garda help for fear of drawing attention to themselves. The launch of a regularisation scheme will transform the lives of many.
Concerns have been raised about the cost of applying for the scheme – €550 for individuals and €700 for families. Asylum seekers who avail of the scheme are exempt from paying the fee. Anomalies around the eligibility of people who temporarily secured documentation in the past four years have also been highlighted. Notwithstanding these concerns, however, credit is due to Helen McEntee and her department for finally listening to the voices of our undocumented population and offering them a path to regularisation and a more secure future out of the shadows.