A couple of weeks ago, President Obama bypassed Congress and announced a long awaited Immigration Reform. This reform is essentially a blanket amnesty estimated to affect some 5 million undocumented workers in the US, provided they fit the criteria: you have to have lived in the US for at least five years, have US born children and have no prior convictions. Of the estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in the US, at least 20,000 are thought to qualify.
In Ireland, there has been jubilation at the announcement. In particular Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny who wrote a letter to Obama thanking him for the "humanity and leadership" he has shown while pleading that "arrangements be as open and as flexible as possible". Although it leaves out big sections of the undocumented community, this immigration reform will change a lot of people's lives – ending the constant threat of deportation and letting them see their families again.
I spoke to Marie, an Irish migrant who has been undocumented in the US for 14 years. "I have missed weddings, funerals, births and many other important family and friend occasions," she told me. "I want to be able to return to the place of my birth without consequence. I want my children to see where they descend from. They have missed out on so many things because of our status."
Having missed out on previous amnesties offered, Marie is "cautiously excited at the thought of this really happening" and says that "this executive order seems to be our only glimmer of hope." Clearly being undocumented takes a huge emotional toll, so this immigration reform is a positive development.
Unfortunately, Obama's "humanity" strikes a contrast to Enda Kenny's attitude to migrants in his own country – both undocumented economic migrants and asylum seekers.
While waiting for their appeal to be processed, asylum seekers in Ireland are essentially interned in overcrowded centres often for years on end – centres characterised by illegal "house rules", no privacy and on occasion, not enough food. This system, called Direct Provision, houses over 4,300 asylum seekers throughout the country, 10 percent more than Ireland's prison population. One major difference between Direct Provision and prison though? Prisoners know when they're getting out. Direct Provision was initially planned as a temporary solution but people are languishing for more than ten years, while the majority at least spend three years in centres. A third of those in Direct Provision are children.
Reuben Hambakachere, advocate for migrant rights told me about the emotional impact of living in these centres. He fled persecution in Zimbabwe and languished in Direct Provision for four years before having his refugee status accepted. His wife, who arrived four years earlier, spent eight years in the centres.
"Yes a roof was provided over my head but if man had to survive and function well with this only basic necessity then our society would be the happiest ever," he said. "There is little hope for a man or woman who has been denied the right to work and provide for their family. Left with no choice but to depend on the state, living in Direct Provision left me wallowing in poverty with the shame of failing to be a role model to my children."
A month before the US immigration reform was announced, the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald confirmed that there will be no blanket amnesty for those living in Direct Provision in Ireland saying, "It must also be emphasised that broad regularisation programmes are problematic, in particular as they could give rise to unpredictable and potentially very costly impacts across the full range of public and social services."
Asylum seekers in Ireland aren't allowed to work, forcing them to rely on the state. The private run immigration centres are given over €12,500 (£9,875) per person annually. Individual asylum seekers, in contrast, receive only a meagre allowance of €19.10 (£15.10) per week for an adult and €9.60 (£7.60) for a child.
During the discussion surrounding the US immigration reform the old "the Irish built America" trope has come up many times. Current asylum seekers in Ireland are denied the right to do the same. The Irish government is praising the regularisation of Irish migrants in the US while refusing migrants in Ireland the same rights.
Hambakachere told me he was his disappointed in the government's reaction to Immigration reform in the US. "[They] could have chosen to take the initiative and address issues closer to home. By acknowledging Obama's immigration reform as 'humanity', surely at this stage it would be a moral thing to emulate," he said. However, the Irish public don't seem to agree. Despite the glaring injustices of Direct Provision and warnings that this will be our generations' Magdalene Laundries, 54 percent of the country believes that Asylum seekers should stay in Direct Provision.
Famously, Ireland is a nation of migrants – emigration stands at about 80,000 a year. But while there's a lot of concern about those who have left for the US, there's little for those who have arrived in Ireland in need.
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