Should I stay or should I go?
Undocumented Irish talk about missing family life
As an immigrant, the shrilling sound of your phone ringing in the early hours of the morning usually means one thing.
Ireland is calling. As you reach for your phone, a flicker of fear races through your mind -- please don’t let it be bad news.
With justified trepidation, bad news does eventually arrive from home. There has been an accident or, even worse, a loved one has passed away.
As if dealing with overwrought emotions was not enough, the many undocumented here in the U.S., also face the ultimate decision. Should I stay, or should I go?
Queens resident Marie Foy (not a real name; all names have been changed in the story to protect identities) has lived in the U.S. illegally for 14 years. Upon hearing of a family member’s death, she admits she hesitated about what to do.
“The single hardest event to deal with was my grandmother’s death,” Foy told the Irish Voice.
“She and I were always very close, and the hardest thing I've had to do was to make the choice to stay in New York and not to just hop on the plane.
“But as I struggled with making that decision, all I could hear was her voice saying ‘Your life is in New York, you're happy there, don't look back, you have your life to live,’ so she kind of helped me make my decision.”
Currently there are an estimated 50,000 Irish men and women living in the U.S. undocumented. With Irish emigration on the rise, more and more Irish citizens are opting to stay here in the U.S. illegally.
Part of this new wave of immigration, Aisling Connor has been living in the Bronx for just over a year. Working as a receptionist, while she hasn’t been faced with a family crisis in Ireland yet, it’s something that is always on her mind.
“It's great to be able to live a life out here that I could never have at home because of the economy in Ireland, but it could all end if I ever got a call from home,” she reflects.
When Queens resident Deirdre Doherty got the bad news that her sister-in-law had passed away, she made the decision to travel home for the funeral after four years of her undocumented life in New York.
“A funeral is a trip you have to make,” Doherty told the Irish Voice.
“I made the choice to go home to my sister-in-law’s funeral. For my brother’s sake I felt like I needed to be there to comfort him, and nothing is as important as family.”
After going home to Ireland for the funeral, Doherty ran the risk of been denied reentry to the U.S. She took the chance and made it, but now three years later she recalls the nerves that consumed her before clearing U.S. immigration in Dublin Airport.
“The nerves were on overload,” she admitted. “I sat at the bar for nearly an hour to build up courage drinking a brandy and I don't even drink brandy!
“I just watched the immigration officers thinking about which one looked the nicest and wouldn't give me hassle.
“Thoughts were flying through my head -- what would I do if I didn't get back in and my boyfriend would be still in New York? I started thinking about would he move home if I got stopped?”
For Doherty, the gamble paid off. She is now living here for the past seven years.
Despite this, she told the Irish Voice, missing family events is not something that gets easier.
The upcoming wedding of her only sister next March is another family occasion where her absence will be duly noted.
“Only yesterday my sister, sister-in-law and mom went shopping for the dress and I had to hear all about it on the phone,” Doherty said.
“I had to say no to being bridesmaid which is heartbreaking, but thankfully she understands being the great sister she is.
“Missing out again doesn't really get easier, just something that I have to accept as I was the one who made the choice to live here illegally.”
Kieran Kelly, who works as a machine operator in the Bronx, says that the birth of his first niece was especially hard.
“Family means a lot and not seeing her grow up is hard,” he told the Irish Voice.
Living here illegally since September 2008, Kelly says if he wasn’t here in the U.S. he would be in another country.
“At the moment the way things are in Ireland it doesn’t seem that my decision to stay here illegally was that of a bad one,” says Kelly.
“I’m sure that if I wasn’t here that I probably would be with a lot of my mates who have all relocated to Australia.”
Patricia Collins originally from Roscommon, says that if bad news does arrive, sometimes loved ones at home will give an edited version of events.
“Anyone will tell you that if they receive bad news from home it’s only about 85% of the truth,” says Collins.
“Half the time they forget to tell you the remaining 15% because they feel like they are protecting you from the worst, as you’re in America that you'll not know the difference.”
Collins, who works in a company’s accounting department in Manhattan, admits that she has missed countless family occasions since becoming undocumented five years ago.
“Obviously birthdays, funerals, communions, christenings and anniversaries are a given,” she told the Irish Voice.
“The last five years have just flown by and it’s crazy when you actually sit down and look at the amount of significant things you've missed out on because it’s so easy to forget, especially when you weren't there to celebrate the occasion,” she added.
“It kind of opens your eyes that time hasn't stood still at home like you wish to believe.”
A bar manager on the Upper East Side, when Sarah Kearney’s sister phoned her from their home in Cork to announce her engagement, despite being overjoyed, she admits she had mixed emotions.
“I was thrilled for them, but yet a part of me was filled with sadness that I couldn’t be there to celebrate with them,” says Kearney, who has lived in New York illegally for almost six years.
With a brother in Florida who is also undocumented, two Kearney family members would be missing from the family wedding in Ireland. But chatting to her sister on Skype one day, the budding bride revealed the family had decided to take their wedding plans to the U.S.
“They decided to cancel all plans to get married at home and come here to New York just so my brother and I could be a part of their special day, something I will treasure forever,” Kearney shared.
“We had the most amazing two weeks when several family members decided to join in the celebrations, most of whom I hadn't seen in five years.”
Kearney, who originally came to New York on a year-long career break, says that missing family events is just one of the hardships she endures as a result of her choice to stay here illegally.
“The decisions and struggles I face choosing to remain in this country as an illegal immigrant effect me on an ongoing basis,” she told the Irish Voice.
“I dread the day I have to make that 'unspoken' decision to go home for a sickness or bereavement.
“It's something I try not to think about but as long as I remain here I am aware of it,” says Kearney.
Choosing to remain in the U.S. illegally is not an easy decision for any person. Most are fully aware of the potential repercussions of their choice. But for many their final decision boils down to a choice between their new existence in the U.S. and their old life in Ireland.
Not being able to return to the place you grew up is one of the biggest sacrifices associated with being undocumented, a luxury they surrender but constantly question.
“I've missed out on family life for six years. A little thing like walking in your door at home makes you sometimes question your decision to stay here,” admitted Kearney.
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