"The law is not on our side... Immigration got us before we could get legal"

Hughie and Sarah O'Donnell had lived and worked in the US for the last 15 years - before Hughie was deported back to Ireland

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The O'Donnell family. Image: Change.org

An Irish family deported from the United States have started a petition to help them return to live in America.

Hughie and Sarah O’Donnell had planned to spend Christmas in New York this year, a place that they have both called home for the last 15 years. However a knock on the door from Immigration and Customs Enforcement just a few weeks ago has changed everything.

The couple were forced to leave last month after it emerged one of them had been in the US on an expired visa.

Now back in his hometown of Gweedore in Co Donegal, Hughie is afraid that he is going to be apart from his family at Christmas.

They now want to deliver a list of signatures to US Congress calling for a reversal of their deportation order.

Hughie spoke to Colette Fitzpatrick this morning about their current situation, and why they left Ireland in the first place.

"I went to New York [because] I had family there and I wanted to go and try it out. I emigrated there, and loved it after a few weeks. I started work, and I've been with the company ever since".

He says he originally travelled on a regular holiday visa, which expired after 90 days, after which he was in the US illegally.

"At the beginning I was off the books," he explained of his tax situation. "After a couple of weeks then I got a tax ID number, which lets illegals work in New York". This allowed him to pay federal taxes 'on the book'.

Hughie was originally deported when he attempted to travel home to Ireland to visit his dying father in 2008. "They detained me for five days in a prison in Buffalo," he explained. "It was very, very hard".

After being deported back to Ireland, Hughie spent three and a half weeks with his father before he passed away. "Then I stayed in Donegal for a couple of weeks," he remembers. "There was nothing at all in Gweedore. The recession had just hit the whole country. So I decided to go back to America again".

Hughie went back to the States by sneaking in through Canada with a friend. He met Sarah - originally from Kerry - a few weeks after returning to the US. They married, and now have two children.

"Because we were married and I'm a citizen, our children are citizens, I always thought we had more positives on our side that would keep him here," Sarah explained. "Unfortunately the law is not on our side... immigration got us before we could get legal".

Hughie was travelling to work at 5am in the morning when he was arrested by around a dozen officers. "I looked at their badges, and it said ICE - which is Immigration and Customs Enforcement," he recalled. "Once I saw that I knew exactly what it was then".

Sarah, who is now back in Ireland with Hughie and their children, observed, "I do truly believe that somebody out there will help us to try and get back and get our life back in New York - and do it the proper legal way like we always wanted to.

"We're praying and hoping that some law will pass that Hughie will eventutally get some sort of visa - we're not even hoping for citizenship".

You can sign their petition here, and listen to the full podcast of their interview below:

There are currently 50,000 undocumented Irish in the States.

Senator Mark Daly, the Seanad Spokesperson for the Irish Overseas and the Diaspora, says people need to be very careful when it comes to immigration advice.

Speaking to Colette, Senator Daly says "once you get into the system and you're facing deportation it's very hard to get out of it.

"I would urge anyone who has family, relations and friends in the US to make sure that they contact reputable organisations like the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, or Billy Lawless in Chicago, or the Irish Pastoral Centres in San Francisco, Boston and New York," he added.