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Larry Donnelly We must help the undocumented Irish in the US - they still need us

Our columnist welcomes the regularisation scheme for undocumented immigrants here and is reminded of Irish people in the same boat in the US.

FOLLOWING A POLICY shift that was announced late last year by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, approximately 17,000 undocumented immigrants in Ireland – together with their partners and eligible children – can now seek to have their status regularised. 

They will then have full access to the labour market and can ultimately obtain Irish citizenship.

Minister McEntee aptly summed up the impetus behind the move: “I firmly believe this scheme will improve the lives of thousands of people across the country who contribute to our society, enrich our culture and work in our economy but unfortunately still live in the legal shadows. People come to Ireland to make a better life for themselves and their families and they can find themselves undocumented for many reasons.”

This initiative is an excellent one.  There are numerous organisations and committed individuals who have been pushing hard for the interests of those women and men who are toiling in often precarious jobs, paying taxes and raising Irish boys and girls, while being mired in limbo.

These campaigners deserve credit for highlighting the problem, as does the minister for a response that is rooted equally in compassion and common sense.

And it is important to note that the scheme neither signals that there is a permanent welcome mat for everyone who might want to come to this country nor poses any sort of danger to the public.  The window is only open for six months and the applicants must be of good character and not have serious criminal records.

Undocumented Irish

At a personal level, as someone who hails from somewhere else and has made Ireland my home, I am delighted for my fellow immigrants who will gain. I was lucky enough to disembark an Aer Lingus plane already in possession of an Irish passport.  I am very conscious that their road has been an awful lot tougher.

The news that something would be done to ameliorate the plight of people who doubtless will continue to enrich this island we all love immediately made me think of the Irish undocumented in the United States. 

It is instinctive, given that my family has a track record of political activism in support of those who have followed us across the Atlantic to chase the American Dream and that so many of them reside in and around my native Boston.

Of course, this is a very different nation than it was in the 1980s when Brian Donnelly, my uncle and the US Congressman who made our surname synonymous with Irish emigration, was spurred into action. It can be argued – and some frequently do – that, owing to an extraordinary, wide-ranging transformation, the Irish no longer need to make the journey that their predecessors did.  The follow-on point is that those who find themselves in difficulty stateside and seek help from the government and politicians back home don’t deserve it.

Keeping the focus on

The detractors may deny that many were effectively driven out by a dearth of opportunity in their locality.  But a university education, which has been cast as the Holy Grail, and the careers third level graduates typically embark upon are not for everyone. 

The detractors may deny that it is the flow of people between the US and Ireland that has created a sacred relationship which is the envy of much of the rest of the world – and that the present pause on immigration poses an existential threat to it.

And the detractors may deny that, in the undocumented, tens of millions of Irish Americans see their own parents, grandparents and great grandparents. The amazing life experiences we grew up hearing about from our elders and the grá for Ireland that was engendered in us as a result has benefitted the country they left immensely.

Yet it is for these reasons that the Ancient Order of Hibernians has hired ex-Waterford TD John Deasy to serve as its director of government affairs in Washington, DC and in Dublin. The AOH has asserted that “there’s a need for stronger advocacy in Washington on Irish American issues and for Irish people living in the US” and Deasy has opined that it is time for the Department of Foreign Affairs to get “back to basics” – with a focus on immigration.

In fairness, Irish politicians never fail to bring up the undocumented and other proposals, such as allocating unused E-3 visas to skilled Irish workers who want to relocate to the US, when they meet their American counterparts. 

Nonetheless, the appointment of Deasy, an alumnus of Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania and subsequently a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill, could further advance things. And with Joe Biden in the White House and stalwart Irish Americans like Richard Neal and Brendan Boyle as allies in the House of Representatives, there is potential, even in a lamentable, hyper-partisan climate.

Musn’t forget

Giving up hope on this front is not an option because, as a post-Christmas trip to my hometown revealed, the undocumented Irish are still there. I was surprised by the number of young Irish we came across when dining and drinking out. Their accents and our conversations suggested that a substantial percentage of the new arrivals are either from the north or from border counties and have moved to Boston because of the financially lucrative work available, despite the risks that entails.

To bring it down to brass tacks again for the sceptics, the undocumented Irish who are employed in the hospitality sector are a vital cog in the economy of eastern Massachusetts. Believe it or not, plenty of Americans – for whom travel abroad is a bridge too far – go to Boston to have an Irish vacation. They can get authentic Irish food, drink, music and culture served up to them with an Irish accent.  The very fact that there is a Boston Irish Tourism Association speaks for itself.

Sadly, the pandemic has had a severe impact on them and on the many working as carers and in the construction industry.  Their capacity to provide for themselves was effectively stripped away for a time and they had no safety net to rescue them. 

Now that the worst of Covid-19 is, please God, in the rearview mirror, it is crucial that Ireland and Irish America re-engage on their behalf. When doing so, citing what has been achieved for those similarly situated here may prove fruitful, as might expanding possibilities for more Americans to live in their ancestral homeland.

Sinn Féin TD Johnny Guirke, who spent 18 years in Boston himself, said it well recently in the Dáil.  “Ministers and the Taoiseach will be heading to Washington for St Patrick’s Day.  I urge the Government to do all in its power to raise with President Biden the issue of the thousands of undocumented Irish in the USA…We will never have a better chance to make progress on Irish issues, especially the undocumented, than now…We need to do more to help.”

Amen to that, Deputy Guirke.        

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal. His new book – The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family – is published by Gill Books and is now available in all bookshops.


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