By Edel McGinley.
Enda Kenny wrote to President Obama in November to commend him on the “humanity and leadership” he had shown in his efforts to regularise undocumented migrants in the United States. The Taoiseach’s words demonstrate great empathy for the many undocumented Irish in the US and an understanding of the need for decisive, pragmatic and comprehensive action on this issue. His sincerity was so patently heartfelt it was almost as if he’d thought it through.
The following day, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) released the results of a small survey, of 540 undocumented migrants in Ireland. Like the undocumented in the US, they are unable to travel back home for a father’s funeral or a daughter’s wedding. Like the undocumented in the US, they live in fear of contact with the authorities, afraid to report assaults or burglaries. Like the undocumented in the US, they work hard and provide essential services. The Taoiseach, who has such empathy for the undocumented, could change their lives in the morning.
We estimate that there are up to 26,000 undocumented people in Ireland, including thousands of children. During the ‘boom’ years, people from all over the world responded to Ireland’s urgent need for labour. Our immigration system, constructed in a hurry and a mess of ad hoc and piecemeal policies, failed to keep up with the demand. According to our survey, 86.5% of undocumented migrants entered the State legally and subsequently became undocumented, falling through gaps in the system.
Of the 540 people surveyed, 81% have lived in Ireland for over five years. One in five has been here for over 10 years. For these people, workers, children, families, Ireland is home. Abdullah is a statistical engineer, undocumented in Ireland since 2006. He runs a restaurant in Dublin, and pays tax. He speaks of feeling stuck, unable to move forward, and of the grief of missing his father’s funeral. The painful experience of watching a family funeral on Skype is now familiar to many undocumented migrants both in Ireland and the US.
Contrary to the popular myth, undocumented migrants cannot claim social welfare in Ireland, or any benefits whatsoever. The survey revealed that 87% of the migrants are in paid employment. Over half of the remainder, which includes stay-at-home parents, have been out of work for less than six months. A third are current taxpayers. Over half have paid tax in Ireland at some stage, despite serious obstacles to doing so.
The survey found that undocumented migrants in Ireland are concentrated in low-paid work. Undocumented workers cook and serve your meals, they mind your children, they care for older people. They clean homes, restaurants and offices across Ireland. This is a significant contribution in labour alone, but there is also consumer expenditure to consider. We estimate that undocumented migrants currently contribute €255 million a year in consumer spending. In return, Ireland’s politicians lobby for immigration reform in the US and celebrate Obama’s plans to regularise the undocumented, while essentially ignoring the thousands of undocumented men, women and children living here in Ireland.
MRCI have worked with undocumented migrants since 2001. The findings of our survey are supported by an analysis of over 2,600 MRCI case files from the past five years. This is not a new problem, and it won’t go away on its own. However, there is a straightforward and sensible solution: a regularisation scheme. Such a scheme is far from unprecedented. Regularisation schemes have already been introduced in at least 17 other EU countries. Irish politicians have lobbied for a US scheme for years. Regularisations do not ‘reward illegality’, they are a common-sense response to an inescapable reality.
If this issue is not addressed now, in ten years’ time we could be saying that one in five undocumented migrants has spent over twenty years in Ireland.
The Government has a choice: it can act now, showing the humanity and leadership for which the Taoiseach praised President Obama, or it can wait, and knowingly allow thousands to live in fear, afraid to go to hospital, afraid to speak to a Garda, afraid to stand up to an exploitative employer, and afraid, in the case of undocumented children, to hope for any future in the only country they have ever called home.
In the spirit of Christmas, let’s imagine a system where we treat our immigrants as we want to have our emigrants
Edel McGinley is director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland