It’s a familiar tale: thousands of undocumented Irish men and women spend decades of their lives in America unable to visit home out of fear that they would be unable to return if they did.
One such family have shared their story with the Irish Times; identified only as Sandra and Neil they originally hail from Buncrana in Co. Donegal and came together to the United States twenty years ago.
Now living in Chicago with their two US-born children - both in middle school - aged thirteen and ten this week marks an important family milestone for them as their two children will visit Ireland for the first time.
They’re going to Donegal for their cousin’s wedding and although their parents will drop them off at the airport they can’t go with them.
“Oh there will be some tears,” Sandra told the Irish Times. The last time either of the married couple stepped foot in Ireland was 15 years ago when Neil went back to his father’s funeral. There was a strong chance he wouldn’t be let back into the country but he risked it anyway.
Both have elderly parents still alive in Donegal and the thought of their two kids visiting them thrills them, “It will be nice for them to see them alive there,” Sandra said.
Neil keeps in contact with his mother through Skype or Facetime but the thousands of miles between them is often hard to bare, “My mother is pretty much like every other Irish mother. She doesn’t like to talk about it. It is just the way it is. One minute she is crying and the next moment she is laughing.”
The fact that the groom is the older brother of one of the victims of the car crash on the Inishowen Peninsula in 2010 makes the separation even harder. But it is what it is and Sandra acknowledges there is not much they can do to change it now, “The thought of them going without us is tough but that is a choice that we made. We have to stand by it 20 years later.”
Neil agrees with her, “It is very, very sad that it has come to that but there is no point in depriving my kids in not going back.”
He’s asked them to take as many pictures as they can while they’re in Buncrana - of their nan’s local chippie and the supermarket he used to get sweets from when he was school.
The couple were hugely worried when Trump’s campaign rhetoric regarding immigration but now he’s been elected Neil is more sanguine, “At the start I was definitely scared with Trump but what is going to happen here? Obama wasn’t able to get anything pushed through. For us it cannot get any worse.”
They’ll be watching carefully to see what actions - if any - he takes to fulfill his campaign pledge to deport the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the United States.
In the meantime, there’s no point worrying and he’s reflective about how his life has come full circle. “Me and Sandra flew out on the same flight 20 years ago,” he said.
“We never in our wildest dreams thought that we would be coming to America and we would be leaving our kids to fly home to Ireland alone.”