Senator for the Irish Diaspora Billy Lawless admits there will be no special treatment for Irish “illegal” living in the US for decades.

A leading campaigner for immigration reform in the United States admitted this week that there was no sign of any light on the horizon for the thousands of ‘undocumented’ or ‘illegal’ Irish who have lived in the U.S. for decades.

Given the current level of ‘anti-immigrant rhetoric’ across the U.S., Senator Billy Lawless told IrishCentral that he was not seeking any special status for the undocumented Irish – nor did he expect them to be treated in any way differently from other nationalities.

It is estimated that there are anything between 10,000 and 50,000 Irish ‘illegals’ in the U.S. This can be a particularly tough time for their families, as another year passes without them being able to return home.

If they did go home to Ireland and attempted to re-enter the U.S., they would be landed with three or ten-year bans. 

Senator Lawless, who became the first representative of the Irish Diaspora to be nominated to Seanad Eireann (the Irish Senate) in May 2016, fully admits that the undocumented Irish are in a predicament of their own making.

He divides his time between Chicago, where has been based (legally) since the 1990s, and Leinster House in Dublin.

Senator Billy Lawless speaking in the Irish Senate.

Senator Billy Lawless speaking in the Irish Senate.

Irish in the USA since the 1980s / 90s

“We had a big influx of Irish people 20 years ago,” he told Irish Central from his Chicago home. 

“Many of them were tradesmen, plasterers and plumbers, escaping a recession back home, and they came here to work hard during the boom. They are 20 years older now and many of them are married or have children.

“It’s tough at this time of year, because many of them are unable to get home for Christmas or the New Year. If they did, they would face three or ten year banning orders. What I am finding now is that their 16 to 18-year-old children are only finding out now that they are undocumented. Their parents are ashamed of their status.

“Many of these Irish people are too embarrassed to tell their American children that they are undocumented. Then the children wonder why they never return home to see their families. These children are American citizens and they cannot claim their parents until they turn 21.”

Read more: President Donald Trump would have turned away the Famine Irish just like the Salvadorans

As President Donald J. Trump enters his second year in office, Senator Lawless said the flow of illegal Irish arriving in America had slowed down to a trickle in recent years. The majority of the current ‘illegals’ entered the U.S. in the 1990s and are now in their 40s or 50s.

It was because of problems faced by his customers at his Chicago pubs and restaurants that Lawless began campaigning for immigrant rights. 

But he never pleaded for a special deal for the Irish and joined up with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, eventually becoming its vice-president.

He urged young people in Ireland not to even consider moving to America without the proper documentation. Life can be very tough for those living on the margins or in constant fear of deportation back to the Emerald Isle.

Trump's America

Fears that Trump’s presidency would lead to mass deportations spread quickly through established Irish communities in cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago, this time last year, following the November 2016 election.

However, those fears have been largely unfounded. The latest figures obtained from the U.S. authorities show that only 34 Irish people were deported between October 1, 2016, and September 30, 2017.

Senator Lawless met with U.S. Homeland Security representatives recently and was told that the undocumented Irish were not being targeted for deportations. 

“For those who are deported, it’s a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “While those working within ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) are clearly tasked with targeting illegal immigration, those who are not engaged in illegal activity have little to fear.

"Those working within ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) are clearly tasked with targeting illegal immigration."

"Those working within ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) are clearly tasked with targeting illegal immigration."

“ICE are targeting the criminals and drug-dealers among the immigrant communities, and rightly so. There is no question that ordinary Irish people who work hard and obey the laws are being hunted down. When we see the figures, they are not dramatic. 

“The problem for these people is that they can’t go home. A lot of these people cannot visit their elderly parents, even though their children can. For them, home is always home, and it doesn’t matter how long you have been living away from Ireland.”

Ireland's waves of emigration

Immigration from Ireland has tended to come in waves. There was a huge influx from Ireland following the Great Hunger in the 1840s and 1850s and those who moved across the Atlantic for better lives in the 1990s were just following a long tradition across rural Irish communities.

“When you look at the history of the Irish, we were treated like dirt. We knew what it was like to be at the bottom of the pile in the 1850s. I am sometimes surprised by the attitude of some Irish-Americans towards immigrants. This, after all, is a country built on immigration.”

Senator Lawless said that there may not be too much sympathy for the undocumented in the current climate, but it was also sad when people who had worked hard for 20 years could not go home for the funeral of a loved-one back in Ireland.

Visas for the Irish?

He pointed out that Irish people used to obtain up to 18,000 visas per year in the 1980s, but legal immigration from the Emerald Isle had dwindled completely in recent years. Only 500 H1 visas for higher education were granted to Irish people in 2016.

Fears of deportations are widespread among immigrant communities across the U.S. at the moment as the Trump administration tightens up enforcement of immigration laws.

On Tuesday, 200,000 people from El Salvador who have lived in the U.S. since 2001 discovered that they will lose their right to remain from next year.

The Salvadorans will lose the Temporary Protected Status (TPS), granted to them in the wake of two devastating earthquakes, from September 9, 2019. 

TPS, which benefits people from countries which have experienced disasters, has also been taken away from refugees from Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, eliminating their legal status in the U.S. 

The program was long seen as a temporary haven for victims of a crisis, rather than giving them a permanent right to remain. 

Senator Lawless said he did not want any kind of “special status” for the Irish illegals, but there was a case for looking at a reciprocal visa arrangement between Ireland and the U.S.

He pointed out that over 700 Irish companies are located in the U.S., operating across 2,000 locations in all 50 states. 

 “A lot of people don’t realize that there are approximately 120,000 Americans employed in Irish companies in the U.S., especially in the food production sector, which is nearly as many as the number of Irish people employed by U.S multinationals in Ireland. In general, Irish people come to America, work hard, respect the laws, and create employment.”

Read more: Irish government plans to harness the power of the Irish Diaspora in 2018

* Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook  hereFind Ciaran Tierney on Twitter, @ciarantierney.

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