Emigration nation: how Irish in US will benefit from changes to immigration rules

‘It is an appropriate time to consider what Irish politicians could do to alleviate the situation of undocumented migrants in Ireland’

‘President Obama’s announcement is the latest in a series of immigration reforms undertaken by US presidents.’ Above, about 100 people gather to rally in support of President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration policy in Washington, DC. Photograph:  Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

‘President Obama’s announcement is the latest in a series of immigration reforms undertaken by US presidents.’ Above, about 100 people gather to rally in support of President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration policy in Washington, DC. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

Irish migrant support groups and Irish politicians have given a cautious welcome to President Obama’s announcement on immigration reform. The reforms are wide-ranging, but two are of particular interest to the thousands of undocumented Irish currently living in the United States.

The first is a new Deferred Action programme, which will give provisional legal status to the undocumented parents of US citizens.

The second is the end of the Secure Communities programme, first introduced in 2008. That programme required local police to provide details of people arrested for minor crimes to federal authorities, and resulted in a significant increase in the level of deportations from the US.

The new Deferred Action programme has received most attention. Around 3.7 million of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US are expected to be eligible for it. To qualify, you must be the parent of a US citizen child, have lived in the US for at least five years, pass a criminal check, submit biometric data, and pay taxes, fees and penalties.

In return, you will be granted provisional legal status for three years, and thus will not be deported and have the opportunity to work and, eventually, apply for a green card. The main beneficiaries of this programme are expected to be immigrants from Latin America and from Asia. However, the programme excludes people who do not have US-born children and recent arrivals, and there is no guarantee it will be extended past the initial three-year period.

Childhood programme expanded

Of more immediate benefit to the undocumented Irish in the US is the end of the Secure Communities programme. Under this programme, local police submitted fingerprint data of people arrested for minor crimes, such as traffic offences, to federal immigration authorities.

If people were identified as undocumented, local police were required to detain them for deportation. The result was a marked increase in deportations linked to minor or no crimes. In 2007, around 319,000 people were deported from the US. By 2012, this had increased by 31 per cent, to around 419,000.

Just over 100 Irish nationals were deported between 2012 and 2013. The fear of being apprehended for minor crimes, particularly traffic offences, has added considerably to the stress of being undocumented. Gerry and Clare, undocumented Irish who spoke about their experiences on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, described the persistent fear of being pulled over and deported, and how this had affected their everyday lives. As Gerry said, “You’re always thinking . . . it could happen to you.”

While individual cities, particularly in California, had already stopped co-operating with Secure Communities, the official end of the programme will bring some relief to all undocumented migrants. Indeed, its effects will be more immediate and probably more far-reaching than the measures announced under the Deferred Action programmes.

President Obama’s announcement is the latest in a series of immigration reforms undertaken by US presidents, ranging from Ronald Reagan’s large-scale amnesty programme in 1986 to smaller scale programmes targeting specific groups, such as the US military. Irish citizens have dispropotionately benefited from many of the smaller scale initiatives, such as the diversity visa lotteries (so-called Donnelly and Morrison visas).

The US is not alone in providing regular amnesties for undocumented migrants. In Europe, for example, Italy, Spain and Portugal have all had recent, substantial regularisation programmes.

The frequency and scale of amnesties shows the extent to which irregular migration is now a constant feature of western societies. They also highlight the precarious existence of undocumented migrants who, between amnesties, are vulnerable to exploitation and have few, if any, means of seeking protection.

Undocumented migrants are unable to fully participate in the societies where they live because of the fear of getting deported, and are also severed from their places of origin because of restrictions on their ability to travel. These are lives in limbo, in the US and elsewhere.

Irish politicians have shown great compassion for the plight of the undocumented Irish in the US, and continue to advocate on their behalf.

Fear of discovery

They live in constant fear of discovery, they are distressed by their inability to return to their country of origin in cases of emergency, and they have little or no legal protection against exploitation, including no rights under Irish employment law following a recent High Court judgment.

The experiences of undocumented migrants in Ireland will be highlighted in an important report to be published by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland this Wednesday.

It is an appropriate time to consider what Irish politicians could do to highlight and alleviate the situation of yet another group of undocumented migrants, those who live in Ireland. Mary Gilmartin is a senior lecturer in geography at Maynooth University. Her book Ireland and Migration in the 21st Century will be published by Manchester University Press in 2015.

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