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not messing around

'Don't open your door' - things have just gotten very, very real for illegal Irish in the US

Under Donald Trump’s presidency, US customs officials are directly targeting undocumented immigrants like Donegal man John Cunningham who seems set to be deported.

NY: 2017 Annual St. Patrick's Day Parade In NYC A woman holds an American and an Irish flag on Fifth Avenue in New York on St Patrick's Day in March SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

IN THE RUNUP to the Republican presidential primaries in February 2016, Donald Trump and his immediate rivals were doing all they could to up the stakes against each other when it came to illegal immigrants in the US.

At that time, Senator Ted Cruz, then Trump’s closest rival, told former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly that when it came to the illegal Irish (or ‘Tommy O’Malley’ as O’Reilly described the typical undocumented Irishman) in America, “we’ll send the Feds to his house, take him out and put him on a plane back to Ireland”.

“You better believe it.”

Cruz lost to Trump, and Trump won the presidency, but regardless, that particular nightmare has now, with the arrest of John Cunningham in Boston last Friday, become very real for the estimated 50,000 Irish nationals living in America without documentation.

Cunningham, a prominent member of the GAA in the Massachusetts city (he served as umpire at the recent championship fixture between New York and Sligo on US soil), had been living in America for nearly 20 years, where he runs his own business. No longer.

Last March Cunningham appeared on an edition of RTÉ’s Prime Time regarding the status of undocumented Irish in the US.

‘Should have kept his head down’

“People now don’t want to talk to the media as they think it was Prime Time that exposed him,” says Niall*, a legal immigrant (by marriage) living in Philadelphia for the past 10 years.

I don’t believe that myself but people look at these things and say ‘he should have kept his head down’.

cunningham# John Cunningham RTÉ Prime Time RTÉ Prime Time

Cunningham’s problems have at their root an executive order signed by President Donald Trump on 25 January entitled ‘Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States’ US immigration lawyer Caro Kinsella tells

“What this did in effect was put illegal aliens in the US who have overstayed their visas on a similar legal footing to criminals.”

In practice, it saw Attorney General Jeff Sessions create an additional 10,000 positions within ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), tasked specifically with targeting illegal immigration and removing such illegals from America. This is one executive order with teeth.

“It is very, very serious. If you are in the US undocumented then the Trump administration wants you out. They are not messing around,” says Kinsella.

It means that unless you have immigration relief (a sort of bridging instrument allowing those without legal status to talk to law enforcement without being immediately deported) you are in a very vulnerable position indeed in America right now.

People, like Cunningham, who entered the US under legal ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) visa waivers and then overstayed their expiration date are now in the same bracket as petty criminals (those convicted of jaywalking for example) and those who pose public safety or national security threats.

Not only this, but, as Kinsella notes, those entering under visa waiver automatically waive their rights to contest any removal actions against them. If you are arrested, you will go to a detention centre (such centres exist across the US – they’re often privately owned and often even have their own courtrooms). You will not have the right to see an immigration judge. In short, you will be deported.

Ice powers

Even now there are efforts in train to grant the same powers boasted by Ice to local and state authorities.

It is not a comfortable time to be living in America illegally, to put it mildly.

US President Donald J. Trump hosts an opioid and drug abuse listening session Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions in the White House in March SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

“Everyone is more fearful,” says Niall, who though documented through marriage says he knows many others who are not so lucky. “Ice has expanded powers and is going after more people. It’s a bit of a shock to the Irish psyche that you can be undocumented with no criminal record and still be deported.”

Look at John Cunningham. He was no threat to anyone, had his own business, paid taxes. None of that matters.

Niall says the news is “slowly spreading through the Irish community”. “People are talking and sharing it on social media.”

So what can be done? Not much it seems. “There’s really not much you can do unless you keep changing your address or moving around, and that makes it difficult to hold down a job,” says Niall.

If you’re undocumented, and you’re not married, you’re in a very precarious position.

“I’m coming across these situations, where people enter under Esta (visa waiver)” says Caro Kinsella. “You come to America, you stay, you meet the love of your life and they’re a US citizen. If Ice places you in detention then it is too late to then start the immigration process because you waived your right to be heard before an immigration judge.”

If you’re married to a US citizen they can petition for you to get a green card (a form of immigration relief). But if that’s never filed you’ll never see an immigration judge. You’ll go to a (detention) centre. And from there you’ll be gone.

‘Don’t answer your door’

“This order goes against everyone who is undocumented, no exceptions. There are no gray areas, it’s black and white.”

What legal advice would she give?

“My advice is to get your legal status in order. That can be easier said than done, especially if you’ve been there a lifetime,” Kinsella says.

If it is possible for you to obtain immigration relief, either by marriage or via a child who is older than 21 say, then do so. Because if you end up in a detention centre you are gone. And your lack of a criminal record, your paying taxes, all that will mean absolutely nothing.

Some of her other advice is sobering.

“Don’t answer if they knock, don’t open your door. Keep a low profile. If you do answer your door make sure they have a properly-executed arrest warrant,” she says.

Keep your head low, don’t drive, don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“And if you have children then make sure you have your emergency contacts sorted out. Make sure someone has power of attorney over your possessions, your house, your property.”

It’s important to have a gameplan should the worst come to the worst.

* not his real name

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