An American/Canadian couple are desperately fighting to stay in Ireland after moving there five years ago with their three children.
They are being supported in their quest by the village community of Ballinskelligs in Kerry where they have settled.
Just this week, the American/Canadian Ware family: Shannon, Katharine (Kate) and their three daughters Zoe, 11, Grace (Gráinne), 8, and Abigael (Gobnait), 7, were given until May 31 to show proof of paid passage to leave Ireland by June 12, uprooting the life they’ve built there for the past five years.
“By their reckoning we have to be out on the 12th,” Shannon, an American citizen, says, “but our daughter has a school tour that day so we may just do it on the 13th.
The Ware family’s trouble began three years ago, when they apparently fell foul of the discord between the two bodies in the Republic of Ireland allowed to award visas to non-citizens, the Irish Naturalization and Immigration Service (INIS) and the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB).
As they tell it, the family arrived in Ireland five years ago, in July 2010, on a three-month holiday visa, intending to initially scope out the area and make plans for a long-term return later, but immediately they wanted to stay. They had independent income and were never reliant on the State.
“According to the published INIS rules and the understanding of the immigration officer with the local Gardaí,” Shannon, a Japanese translator, explains, “he had the authority to grant us a Stamp 3 [For Non-EEA visitors - This person is permitted to remain in Ireland on conditions that the holder does not enter employment, does not engage in any business or profession and does not remain later than a specified date] provided we had private health insurance and could demonstrate sufficient finances to support ourselves.”
According to these terms, the Wares received their first Stamp 3 and were told that they should renew this every year for 5 years before being allowed to apply for Irish citizenship. They continued to renew this stamp each year and in May 2012 made a written application to INIS for a change of status as they say INIS themselves had advised them to do.
At first, the family continued to renew their visas on 3 month extensions awaiting word on their change of status. This was until a Garda (police officer) told them that this was not required once they had an open INIS Change of Status application.
Unfortunately, the family now believes that there is some discrepancy about this rule between the GNIB (Garda) and INIS and, despite being advised by a Garda not to renew the three-month extension, they are seen as having been undocumented by INIS during this time.
On submitting all of their financial documents for the previous two years for the Change of Status application, the family received a refusal from INIS on the grounds of insufficient finances. Their bank balance was at the time just €1,500 despite €24,000 annual household turnover, and having never having sought recourse to public funds.
“There’s two things that are really at play,” Shannon believes.
“There’s a bigger political battle between the Garda and the Dept of Justice.
“Even though the public statement is that the Garda work with the Dept of Justice and we all work together, the reality is that there’s an awful lot of adversarial finger-pointing and blaming.
“That really has nothing to do with us, but we have fallen into that.
“The second really major point is,” he continues, “when you immigrate to Canada, to the US, to Japan, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, they have all these rules and everything is spelled out in very precise detail. One of the things that’s spelled out is how much money you must have when you enter the State.
“In Ireland, not only does the Dept of Justice not disclose how much money they’re looking for, it may actually be a moving target.
“Instead of taking all that two years of financial information and looking at the full year and the fact that we’d brought in about €25,000 a year and spent €25,000 a year, they said, ‘Your ending balance is €1,500. You’re insufficient to support yourselves. You’re out; your application is denied.’”
Rectifying this and re-entering the country with an improved bank balance, the family was again turned down, they claim, because they had been refused on a financial basis before.
On receiving the second rejection from INIS, the family planned to move to Northern Ireland for six months until learning that they could not qualify for a visa there. Returning to Kerry, their solicitor made a Humanitarian Leave to Remain (HLTR) request on the grounds of the three girls' integration into their community.
At this point, the Wares tell IrishCentral, the local community rallied around their cause.
“It’s been really discouraging dealing directly with the government and dealing with the bureaucrats,” Shannon says.
“But the other side has been really awesome. When Martin Ferris (local Sinn Féin TD) summarized our case, when he described to Frances Fitzgerald (Minister for Justice) our situation, I said I actually couldn’t have described it better myself.
“There has been this other side of seeing the merits and the real effectiveness, not necessarily of the elected government or the bureaucracy, but of people who care about Ireland and people who are actually working for a better Ireland.”
“We’ve really seen some heroic aspects of the community,” Kate, a Canadian citizen, continues.
“The community called a town hall meeting. It was beautiful and it was so lovely to see the support for our family.”
The problem finally came to a head in the past few weeks with the failing health of both Shannon’s mother in the States and Kate’s father in Canada.
“Shannon's mother in North Carolina is battling cancer right now,” Kate tells IrishCentral, “and my father in Toronto has had a recurrence of his cancer.”
On the advice of their solicitor, the family remained in Ireland, afraid to leave the country with an open application for HLTR. Two weeks after requesting and being denied permission to leave and re-enter the country at a later date on compassionate grounds to visit their sick parents that Shannon and Kate received refusal on their whole application and were told that they must leave the country by June 12.
One of the biggest complaints the Wares have with the government is the way in which they feel they have been portrayed, claiming they have been accused of lying and of being deceptive in their dealings with INIS and GNIB. Claims were made that they had applied for a council house until TD Martin Ferris stepped in to ask what proof the government had to support this claim. Once this accusation stopped, Shannon and Kate claim, they were then accused of never having gone to Northern Ireland.
For them, it is obvious that hypocrisy exists with regard the Irish immigration system and the Irish government's outlook on how undocumented Irish workers should be treated in other countries, especially the US.
“We know that there are skilled workers who would settle here, particularly in a rural environment to raise their children long-term, but because they don’t have these visas from Apple, they’re not going to be let in” Shannon claims.
Kate is also critical of the system, in particular, of the existence of two visa-granting bodies.
“Another good modification to the system would be if they had one governing body that could issue visas. But currently, under the Dept of Justice, they have two government bodies that have the authority to issue visas: one is the INIS and one is the GNIB.
“In accordance with what is listed on the INIS website, we had actually gone to the local GNIB officer and he had granted us the Stamp 3 visa … When we went to renew it for a third year, the INIS criticized the GNIB officer saying, ‘You granted these people a visa without reference to this office.’ I was thinking, ‘How can that even be possible? If you both have authority to issue the visa, how can one be out of reference to the other?’”
Kate argues: “This whole issue was that nobody was willing to regularize our status … Despite our best efforts, we had become undocumented.”
The apparent lack of understanding of the Wares' plight by the Irish government is ironic when considered along with Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny’s request to President Obama to help undocumented Irish living in the US.
“There is an agenda to get the population out of the country [Ireland]. You can claim low unemployment numbers if everybody is abroad, so it isn’t a reciprocal thing. It isn’t working together for the good of the people. It’s 'let’s get rid of these people so that I can have a nice cushy job,'” Shannon believes.
“It seems kind of cynical, but when Enda Kenny went and said to Barack Obama, ‘Oh, we have all the undocumented Irish, can’t you do something?’ we were like ‘Well, what about us and what about all these other people that we know?’
“Working class, tradesmen and people with skills but who maybe don't own big tracts of land? They need to go to Australia,; they need to go to America. If they’re on their own undocumented? It’s good! Go! We’d love for you to stay over there.
“Anybody wants to come over here with good intentions, anybody who wants to build the country here? No! Unless you’ve got €500,000 to give away, then the answer is no,” he concludes.
The Ware family appears to have truly integrated into their community in Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry, a Gaeltacht community. The Wares’ emails start, finish and are interspersed with Irish words and phrases. The three girls are Irish speakers and their eldest daughter, Zoe, has even received some attention as a sean-nós singer, performing at the acclaimed Irish-language festival Oireachtas na Samhna in Killarney last October.
Zoe has also recently passed her Aonad exams allowing her to complete her Junior Cert completely through Irish when she moves on to secondary school next year.
Their parental pride shines through as they talk of the way in which their three girls have learned a language so many Irish citizens struggle to comprehend.
“The teachers have said that they’re a good example to the other students because they’re so engaged and they try so hard in their Irish,” Kate says.
Unless the government reverses its decision to force the family to leave by June 12, however, the girls will not even be allowed to complete this current school year.
As tough as it is on Shannon and Kate to think of relocating back to North America, their three girls are leaving a place where they have spent the majority of their lives.
“We try to keep them very gently in the loop, but they’re devastated,” Shannon admits.
“They’re starting to have signs where we can say that’s because of stress; she’s acting out because she’s looking at not seeing her friends.”
“Our youngest, she was two years old when we came here and now she’s seven, so she doesn’t even remember living in Canada … even though she’s technically a Canadian citizen,” Kate adds.
Their eldest daughter Zoe was among those who wrote a letter to Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, pleading for the right to stay and finish her education in Ireland.
“She was devastated … She was saying, ‘I love it here. I love my house, I love my friends, please let me attend school next year.’”
Yesterday marked the final day on which the Ware family could show the Department of Justice that they planned to leave the country by June 12 voluntarily or else face deportation. Speaking to IrishCentral late last week, they remained optimistic for their chances and refused to give up hope.
“Strangely, my feeling is that on the surface it looks really bad, but I always have this kind of inexplicable optimism deep down inside, but on the surface it’s lights out, show’s over,” Shannon admits.
Kate seems more hesitant and wary of what lies in store: “I’m terrified to even telephone because of everything. We’ve followed all the rules so far.
“I also want to hope. I do want it to work out. We are just down to the 11th hour here.”
Despite the fact that proving they will leave Ireland by June 12 means the Wares are voluntarily leaving the country, supposedly allowing them to return and reapply again in the future, they are skeptical of any future success acquiring citizenship or another visa in Ireland.
“We’d only be able to return under very specific terms that they dictate and we would never again be able to come back to our life as it is now,” Kate argues.
“Because nothing they’ve said to us to date had ever been true, they’ve not honored anything they've said to us, we’ve no reason whatsoever to trust anything they say moving forward.”
“I’m scared that, if we do what they say, they will actually use it against us,” Shannon adds.
No matter the outcome of their immigration battle, the bureaucracy, red tape, frustration and anger at the Irish immigration services has not changed their complete outlook on Ireland and they still share the same love for West Kerry that made them want to stay when they first arrived five years ago.
“I think one of the things about this area is that no matter how far people roam, and even after generations, people still feel called back. That may actually be our situation as well,” Shannon admits.
“Provided that we have to leave in two weeks, I think that it will always weigh heavily in our minds, the merits of coming back here even though we’re not born here. It’s touched us, and in 10, even 20 years from now, it won’t just be ‘oh yeah, that time we spent in Ireland.’ It is really significant.”