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Thursday 1 June 2023 Dublin: 15°C
Jose Luis Magana/AP/Press Association Images
Opinion At last, a lifeline for the undocumented Irish in the US
President Obama’s action is the first ray of light in a long time for undocumented Irish men and women effectively trapped in the shadows of places like Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

VERY EARLY THIS morning, Irish time, Barack Obama officially announced that he would use the executive powers vested in him as President of the United States to prevent deportations of millions of people who live and work in the country of my birth without legal status. The announcement has been rightly, albeit appropriately cautiously, welcomed by immigrant support groups in the US.

This executive action will directly assist approximately five million people. Those who have been in the US for more than five years illegally and have children with the legal right to be there can get work permits and will be exempted from deportation for at least three years, provided they pass background checks and pay fees. A larger group of people who entered the country illegally as minors will not be deported.

Indirectly, it appears less likely that anyone who has been in the country for a long period and does not have a serious criminal record will be deported. President Obama stressed in his speech this morning that law breakers would be prioritised for deportation. Also, it will be easier for those in the US illegally to return to their home countries and then re-enter the US.

Irish men and women effectively trapped

Closer to our home and to our hearts on this side of the Atlantic, President Obama’s action is the first ray of light in a long time for undocumented Irish men and women effectively trapped in the shadows of Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere, and for their families back here from Cork to Donegal and all points in between.

It would be an epic understatement to aver that President Obama’s decision is not uncontroversial. Those on the right of the Republican Party have attacked his move to grant a so-called “amnesty” to people who, in their words, “skipped the line” and should be deported. They argue that this executive action will place even more pressure on officials charged with policing the country’s southern border and may even facilitate the legitimate residence of terrorists in the US.

Some observers say that he lacks the legal authority to act without congressional approval. Still others claim that, even if he has the authority, bypassing Congress subverts the democratic process and eliminates any potential there might have been for bipartisanship over the next two years.

By way of summary response to each claim, the hard right’s anti-immigrant posturing is devoid of humanity and is open to the allegation of racism. Their corollary view that an estimated 11 million “illegal aliens” should be deported is fantastical. Additionally, President Obama has already doubled the number of agents working on the US-Mexico border and is increasing funding for border security. Moreover, it is far better that US officials know the identity of those who are there rather than their effectively being allowed to live in the country anonymously, as is the case now.

The ‘American Dream’, open to all

Although the extent of a president’s executive powers has been debated by constitutional scholars, the US Supreme Court has held that “the Executive Branch has exclusive authority and absolute discretion to decide whether to prosecute a case.” As Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California, Irvine School of Law and Samuel Kleiner of Yale Law School wrote recently: “The president clearly has the power to limit deportation of an individual or group of individuals, even a large group.” Indeed, this power to stop deportations has been used by both Democratic and Republican presidents in the past.

The final criticism of executive action on immigration, which relates to the democratic process and the climate on Capitol Hill, is the most compelling. Yet it is vitiated by the realities that comprehensive immigration reform easily passed the sitting Senate and would have passed the sitting House of Representatives, had a vote been allowed by House Speaker John Boehner. And chances of bipartisanship suddenly being resuscitated in Washington, DC were exceedingly slim anyway. Reaffirming that the “American Dream” can be realised by people who weren’t born there will surely be a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s legacy that will be remembered long after the next two years.

The overwhelming majority are taxpayers

However, it is none of these legal and political justifications that most animates my support for President Obama’s use of his executive powers in this instance. It is my empathy as an Irish American for the countless undocumented Irish – both those who I know personally and those who I do not – I’ve come across while growing up in and when visiting my native Boston. They haven’t been lucky enough to win one of the visas that were borne of my uncle’s (former US Congressman Brian Donnelly) same empathy and carry my family’s name, nor the Morrison visa that followed the Donnelly visa, nor subsequent green card lotteries.

For the undocumented Irish, things that so many people take for granted, such as driving a car or calling the police in the event of an emergency, have always been too risky, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority are taxpayers. Above all else, they couldn’t chance returning home for life’s momentous occasions, whether of a joyous or sorrowful nature.

Long overdue family reunions in Ireland

As an emigrant myself, I can’t imagine not having been able to return and be a part of my brother’s wedding or my mother’s funeral in Boston. Some who have made the reverse journey to me have helplessly had to watch their siblings’ weddings and parents’ funerals on Skype from 3,000 miles away. The undocumented Irish have their critics – both here and in the US – but they deserve better than this.

Of course, they number some 50,000 and represent a tiny fraction of the millions who will benefit from this executive action. Nonetheless, in the long battle that preceded this morning’s announcement, Irish and Irish American advocates punched well above their weight and persuaded previously sceptical US political leaders to see immigration and immigrants in a more favourable light. Despite the roadblocks and setbacks they’ve had to overcome, they remained undaunted. Their heroic efforts should never be forgotten. And their work will doubtless continue.

The undocumented Irish would be wise to remain cautious until the precise details as to how President Obama’s executive action will be practically implemented are concretised. Some Republicans will do everything they can to fight it. Yet I believe that, finally, the undocumented Irish can allow themselves to dream. And I have no doubt that their dreams will centre initially on long overdue family reunions in Ireland. I equally have no doubt that the pubs and restaurants in Adams Corner in Dorchester, McLean Avenue in Yonkers and everywhere the Irish in America gather will be buzzing with the good news. I’m delighted.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a columnist with and

Irish undocumented migrants in the USA could be able to visit home

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