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'Panic, Anxiety, Fear': How the Immigration Crackdown Is Hitting the Irish Community

As deportation arrests soar under the Trump administration, Irish immigrants are feeling the pressure to leave the U.S.
A man walks past a mural showing various scenes from Irish life in Yonkers, New York.

A man walks past a mural showing various scenes from Irish life in Yonkers, New York.

Irish migrants have a rich history in America, a fact that's illustrated by the spirited Saint Patrick's Day celebrations seen around the country. But over the past year of aggressive deportation of undocumented immigrants, close-knit Irish communities have expressed growing concerns about the future of immigration reform in wake of several high-profile deportations of Irish living in the United States.

There are at least 144,588 Irish-born naturalized U.S. residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The Irish government estimates there to be 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants, or immigrants who have overstayed visitation periods, that live in the U.S. According to a 2017 Immigration and Customs Enforcement report, ICE deportations of Irish visa "overstayers" rose from 26 in 2016, to 34 in 2017. That's a small number compared with the 128,765 Mexicans who were forced to leave the U.S. last year; still, those from Ireland who are undocumented or have overstayed their visas are feeling the pressure to leave the country—a message that administration is vocalizing more aggressively than in past decades. It's a message that challenges years of calls by the Irish government for broader immigration reform in the U.S. and creates a ripple effect of concern throughout Irish immigrant communities.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump met with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, where the two discussed the issue of undocumented Irish in the U.S., according to the Irish Times. Leaving the meeting, Varadkar suggested that Trump seemed enthusiastic about an arrangement to aid undocumented Irish living in the U.S. "There was support and a good degree of enthusiasm from the administration to work on a solution for the thousands of undocumented Irish that are here but are hardworking, taxpaying people who are very loyal to America," Varadkar told the Irish Times.

Concern persists among Irish immigrants as deportations create a ripple effect throughout communities. "I think 'panic' is the right word; panic, anxiety, fear," says John Foley, an immigration lawyer and principal attorney based in Boston, which has one of the highest Irish populations in the country. "The problem is that there's very little we can do to resolve their situations."

Foley specializes in helping clients with non-immigrant visas and removing conditions. "The Trump administration has made my phone ring much more," he says. But for many clients seeking help, there are few means of recourse. "There's no avenue of relief," Foley says. "It's compounded by the fact that immigration officers have less discretion. As a result, more and more of my clients are being forced to go back to places that they haven't been in years, or even decades."

President Donald Trump embraces Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House on March 15th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump embraces Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House on March 15th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Stories of deportations of those who have lived in the U.S. for decades travel throughout the Irish communities. "You hear stories in the paper of Irish people being deported, despite having been here for years and years," says Aidan Fitzpatrick, a student who moved from Ireland to the U.S. in 2016 to study at Boston College in Massachusetts. "There was one 18-year-old who was just deported despite having been in America since he was two. I think that does make people feel less likely to go out in the first place when they hear these things happening."

The academic F-1 Visa allows students such as Fitzpatrick to study at an accredited university or an academic program approved by ICE. Students also "must have sufficient funds available for self-support," however. Fitzpatrick says his visa allows him to "go in and out as much as I want to study here, and very little else. I'm not allowed to find work off campus. That's restricted on my visa."

The discussion of Irish immigration between Irish and U.S. officials is nothing new; Irish legislators have been pushing for Irish immigration reform in the U.S. years before Trump took office. In a meeting with Trump in March of 2017, Enda Kenny, the former Irish prime minister, made a "plea" on behalf of the estimated 50,000 Irish citizens living illegally in the U.S., emphasizing "this is what I said to your predecessor on a number of occasions," according to a BBC report. Kenny and other Irish officials have tried to secure more work visas for the Irish in the U.S., and to develop exemptions that would make it safer for undocumented Irish immigrants to visit family in Ireland and return to the U.S.

Shortly after Kenny's visit last year, John Cunningham, an undocumented Irish immigrant living in the Boston area since 1999, appeared in an RTE prime time program, in which he talked about living as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. It didn't take long for Cunningham to fall onto ICE's radar; he was arrested on June 16th for his overstay on his visa. He was deported back to Ireland several weeks later.

Like many, Cunningham moved to the U.S. on a 90-day permission through the Visa Waiver Program administered by the Department of Homeland Security. The reciprocal program allots permission to approved citizens of 38 countries to travel in the U.S. for up to 90 days for business or tourism without a visa. By accepting the terms of the program, however, visitors wave their rights to an immigration hearing if they're found in the U.S. after their program stay expires. If the 90-day period passes and the person remains in their host country, they're considered "an overstay."

Irish history and culture have had deep ties to America since the "very beginning," says Patrick Griffin, the director of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at University of Notre Dame.

Griffin says that migration has been a "safety valve" for the Irish society in times of economic downturn. Migration is a central feature of Irish culture, Griffin says, and this movement has been happening for decades, not just to the U.S., but also to other countries in response to times of economic hardship. According to Ireland's national statistical office, the country's unemployment rate was as high as 10 percent in February of 2015. It steadily dropped, to 7.3 percent in February of 2017 to 6.0 percent in February of 2018, however, Ciaran Saunton, a veteran of the Irish lobby for immigration reform in the U.S., told CNN in March of 2017 that the decline should be attributed to immigration from Ireland to the U.S. "Almost 10 percent of the population of Ireland left in five years," Saunton says. "Many of them ended up in cities here." Saunton explained that many undocumented Irish in the U.S. moved seeking employment, something difficult to come by especially in rural areas of Ireland.

In the mid-19th century, almost two million Irish people immigrated to the U.S. over the 10 years after the Irish Famine. Irish immigration peaked during this period, but the number of Irish immigrants per decade has remained over 10,000.

"There was another significant spurt in the 1980s, but for the most part afterward, Irish immigration to the U.S. is not as strong as it was before," Griffin says. "That has changed a bit now because of the long-term prosperity of Ireland, since it has entered the European Union."

Cunningham's deportation sent a strong message through Boston's Irish immigrant community. His deportation was the first high-profile case to come to public attention once Trump began to clamp down on illegal immigration after taking office.

Many undocumented Irish immigrants recognized the privilege that being white grants them; in interviews, Cunningham acknowledged that, when most people "think undocumented," their minds turn to "people who come across the southern order. They're not thinking about the Irish guy who lives right next to them."

A poster advertises information about returning to Ireland at the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, New York.

A poster advertises information about returning to Ireland at the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, New York.

"ICE does not target individuals for deportation on the basis of an individual's country of origin, but on a case-by-case basis resulting from an order of removal issued by a federal immigration judge," writes ICE spokesman John Mohan in an email exchange. "As ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan has made clear, ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement."

Foley, the attorney, stresses the difficulties that lie in the way of finding permanent solutions for his clients, and says he's experienced changes in the way through which federal immigration officials communicate with his office. "It no longer feels like we're working together," he says. "It seems to be them against the world and I'm on the other side."

Grassroots efforts, such as the Irish Stand, work toward giving immigrants a larger voice to cut through the legal battles and political rhetoric. The active movement run by five organizers based in the U.S. aims to preserve civil rights of all immigrants through a series of events celebrating the diversity and culture of the U.S.

Today's event at the Riverside Church in Manhattan is raising money for the American Civil Liberties Union, while other Irish Stand events in Dublin raise money to help refugees in Ireland. "We want to be about access, we want to be about celebration," says Caroline Heafey, one of the event's organizers. "In the same breath, Trump has named March 'Irish-American Heritage Month,' but has condemned immigration in this country. Those two things just can't be reconciled in our view."

The status of the countries' relationship is uncertain, despite Varadkar's meeting with Trump. "What we're seeing is challenging to an Irish subculture here in America," Griffin says. "When the connections between Ireland and America more or less become historic versus what are actually lived, that changes the relationship in subtly profound ways between the two countries."