Irish families living illegally in the US are considering returning home rather than facing the terror of deportation
It’s a miserable night on McLean Avenue and it’s not just the lashing rain and roaring wind.
“He’s going home, taking the family with him.”
“Ah he’s not, is he?”
“He is, better to go out your own way.”
The pubs are sodden with heavy talk from people who have made this corner of New York their own for decades but are now fearing for their community’s future in Donald Trump’s America.
“He’s scared a few of us,” says Kevin outside the red facade of Ned Devine’s Saloon. “I wouldn’t know much about politics. He’s not a popular man on this avenue anyway.”
Walk down McLean and, if it wasn’t for the car plates, you could be in any major Irish town. The accents are of Cork, Donegal, Clare - everywhere across the board. It’s little wonder locals call it ‘the 33rd county’ - they’re only half joking.
But first, I have a confession. I underestimated the level of fear and plain misery among our undocumented living in America. When you come across the tears, the torment and torture of the Irish of McLean, of Philadelphia and of DC, you’re soon put right.
“There was a couple in here with their two kids on Sunday night for dinner and they’re going back this week. It’s sad” says John in McKeon’s Bar.
“People are living here 20, 30 years. They’ve been working and paying taxes and want to buy a house and want to buy a car and just live here. They’re good-living people - get up in the morning and go to work and support their family.”
Barry has lived on the East Coast for 23 years but still speaks in a dense northern border drawl.
He, like many of the 50,000 Irish living in the States illegally, has a good job working in construction to support his wife and young kids (all of whom were born in America). He pays his taxes.
Barry went through a case to get naturalised before a “fraudulent lawyer” ended his hopes of coming “out of the shadows”.
“This is the worst ever now, so it is,” he said. “A lot of people are worried this time around whereas before it wasn’t too bad; now it is a bad, bad atmosphere.
“You have no room now for error,” he explains. He says if you’re stopped by the police on suspicion of anything from a traffic offence to a street argument, you’re now running the risk of detention for a number of weeks and eventual deportation.
“I have three children. My oldest is 13. Every now and again, I mention I might have to go home and my kids actually break into tears. My daughter’s 12 and she’s saying ‘I don’t want to go.’
“They’re brought up the American way,” he says of his young children, “if something ever does happen, what does happen to my kids? This is the only life they have ever known.”
Carlow woman Leslie Alcock is the Executive Director of the Irish Immigration Centre in Philadelphia, one of the oldest Irish communities in the United States. Despite the warm welcome and the home comfort of the cup of tea, there is no mistaking the worry locally.
She works alongside Nicola Bell, the Communications Director, and Ciaran Porter, Youth Development, at the homely centre, which provides immigration advice, senior outreach and organises community events alongside the GAA.
Alcock (right) Executive Director of Irish Immigration Centre Philadelphia and Nicola Bell (left), Communications Director
She says rumours of ICE (federal immigration authorities) raids and checkpoints have stoked fears among the Irish in Pennsylvania.
For many of the undocumented, the lack of paperwork, health insurance and drivers’ licences is a daily hindrance on their efforts to lead as close to normal lives as possible.
“We’ve been putting on videos on Facebook Live on staying safe in the community,” she says, adding that it’s convenient way for people to get vital information without giving away their anonymity by coming out in public.
“Our immigration lawyers and criminal lawyers will give out advice live on Facebook about what to do if you are stopped by the authorities because that is what people fear the most,” she says.
And once you are stopped by the authorities and if you do end up being put through the immigration system, it is, for many, a gruelling process.
Enda is an undocumented Ulsterman in his mid-20s. After showing me his telly, hooked up to an Irish ‘dodgy box’ where the 9 o’clock news is bringing news of Davy Fitzgerald’s latest transgression, he tells me about a friend of his.
“He was locked up for a couple of weeks and deported. His family and kids were here. They had to get everything shipped up and sent back home to Ireland. They’re struggling badly to set up a life in Ireland after being here for 20 years.”
“When the immigration officers get you, there is no such thing as getting out of it. There is no sympathy. No recognition that you’ve worked and paid tax and contributed to society lawfully. They put their foot down and you are gone, that is the end of it, you just have to forget about it,” he says.
What of his own situation? He’s returning to Ireland soon. His girlfriend and their young child have already gone back after her mother was diagnosed with cancer.
It’s a difficult situation. He has “no option” of going home until the time is right. Enda, like many others, is angry at what they say is a clear lack of opportunity in Ireland for the undocumented.
“We left this country in the pit of the recession. We left with no money - probably our flight and a couple of hundred to leave Ireland to start a better life for ourselves and to come home in a couple of years,” he says.
“We are not crying for benefits. A lot of people could have stayed at home without work on the dole and how much would it have cost the country then? We’re punished for going away and trying to provide for our families and not be a burden.”
“When I left Ireland there was no such thing as the Celtic Tiger so I had two choices – emigrate or stay on the dole,” he says, with more than a hint of sadness in his voice and a more than a single tear in his eyes.
“I know a lot of people might be listening to this and saying ‘it is your own fault, you went there illegally’ but I left Ireland because there was no work for me. Did I make a mistake? I’d like to meet any 20-year-old or 19-year-old who didn’t. Yeah, people made a mistake by coming illegal but it shouldn’t be held against us at this stage. We have made families and lives here.”
There is a very real fear of what the future holds under the Trump administration. There is also anger at our own government back in Dublin.
Many of the undocumented and legal Irish alike will tell you they appreciated Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s speech in the White House this past March in which he stood up for the rights of immigrants and told President Trump of the value added to America of countless generations of people from distant shores.
For many others however, the talk is “worth nothing” and “action is all that matters”.
“They’ve let the people down,” says Barry. “If voting comes for Irish citizens abroad, they’ll be let know that.”
He says he’s met four Taoisigh, two Presidents, two Táinistí and a whole host of Ministers.
“I met with Ministers again this year. And we told them, if they come back here next year without anything being done for us, there will be no meeting. I will never meet with another Minister again if they come back next year and I’m in the same situation,” he warns.
The 50,000 undocumented and their neighbours in the Irish community across the United States are now calling for pragmatism. The talk over pints is about what can be done to grant waivers to those who need them.
“The sentiment here is: all those (U.S. military) planes have stopped in Shannon for years and years. There was a deal that could be made to give the Irish visas out here in return for the refuelling,” says John back in McKeon’s.
“Not one of the governments in Ireland did it. That’s sad. In 2017 two governments can’t come together and get something done. We’re not criminals.”
There’s more than a hint of desperation in his analysis. But, to be fair, it is the type of arrangement that Donald “The Art of the Deal” Trump It’s would pride himself on making (if he was on our end of it, perhaps).
It might come off a bit like John Delaney asking for Ireland to be the 33rd team in the World Cup but you do not win without asking the hard questions.
For the 50,000 undocumented, there is nothing to lose but so much to gain.