FORMER IRA prisoners living in the U.S. told the Irish Voice this week of the difficulties they're facing in their campaign to secure their legal immigration status here. All are members of Thar Saile (Overseas), the new support group for the men.In 2000, President Bill Clinton announced that deportation proceedings against the former IRA prisoners would be halted and they would move into "deferred action" status. Although the action was hailed at the time as a victory for the peace process, the men's legal status remains unresolved to this day.With their legal status unresolved since, each of the 15 men still face the threat of deportation at any time, although they've all lived, worked and raised families in the U.S. for decades. As they point out, they were teenagers when The Troubles began -- the majority of the men are now in their early 50s - hailing from Nationalist strongholds like Derry and Andersonstown, and having grown up in the era of the civil rights marches.But they have long since moved on and their war is over, they claim. Married to American wives and fathers of U.S.-born children, they find themselves in a legal limbo that seems to have no end in sight. Now they can see no value in prolonging their uncertainty as the north enters a new era.Matt Morrison, 52, originally from Derry, is a registered nurse and is also the chair of the Irish American Unity Conference (IAUC). Now living in St. Louis, he told the Irish Voice about the continuing anxiety his unresolved statues causes."What has happened over the past couple of years is that we've seen guys be deported for one reason or another," says Morrison. "Right now I do not have a green card. I have a work permit, which is generally renewed every year. The problem is for a period of about 18 months they put me on 60-day work permits. It creates huge expense and trauma. If I don't have a work permit, I do not work."Morrison points out that in international conflict resolution, the first step in the process is for the complete reintegration of former combatants into society. But the 15 men in the Thar Saile campaign have been treated, he says, in a way that is "haphazard, lackadaisical and unfocused."Added Morrison, "While this uncertainty doesn't have the capacity to stop the peace process dead in its tracks, it does have the capacity to fray the edges of the fabric. It gives some ammunition to the people we might describe as dissidents, who are opposed to the peace process. "The bottom line is this is a relatively small group of men we're talking about. It's not a blank check. It will not compromise the security of the United States."Paul Harkin, 55, from Derry came to the U.S. 21 years ago and lives in Chicago with his American wife and three sons ages 7, 11 and 13. Harkin was not included in Clinton's "deferred action" group because his case was filed too late and was therefore not suspended. Currently he is facing a longstanding deportation order."Technically I'm still considered deportable. I have made an application for political asylum and also an application for an adjustment of status, which anyone marrying a U.S. citizen would apply for," says Harkin."Normally the latter process would take about two or three years. It's over 10 years now and it still hasn't emerged. Clearly a political decision has been made not to pursue the case either way."Terry Kirby, 52, originally from Andersonstown, came to the U.S. in 1985 after escaping from the Maze prison that year. Since then he has lived and worked in Chicago with his wife and his 14-year-old daughter. "I was one of the H-Block Four, so I was fighting extradition by the British and I wasn't a part of President Clinton's group," he says.Kirby appealed the extradition ruling in the Ninth Circuit in 1996 and they ruled in his favor. Shortly after the British government announced that they would drop extradition charges against him and the other three.Says Kirby, "My status is still unresolved. So I never know at any point what's going to go on. I'm disabled now from an accident at work and I'm on crutches for the rest of my life. "Any of us would be glad to have a chance to work and get on with it. All we want to have is a normal life."Kirby is aware of talk in official circles that an attempt may be made to extradite him again, and these kind of rumors gained focus when they were repeated on Belfast-based writer and activist Danny Morrison's website last year."We started Thar Saile to try and give support to all the others who are in same position. This whole thing is letting you see that the U.S. government is out of sync with what the peace process is all about and they're supposed to be one of the key brokers in it," he said.Currently the former prisoners cannot travel to Ireland to visit family. They must also constantly renew their work permits over a period of months on an ongoing basis, frequently jeopardizing their employment in the process.Last week the IAUC released a document entitled Prisoners of Peace making the case that the reintegration of former prisoners is a first and critical step in any peace process. In Northern Ireland, they point out, former prisoners are holding elected office and working together to build a new society. Only in the U.S. is their status still unresolved.
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