On Sunday, Dublin’s undocumented gathered outside the central bank.
With green wigs, shamrock-speckled balloons and céili kicks, they sent their best wishes to the undocumented Irish living in America. As they did it, they also pointed out that their plight isn’t dissimilar.
The stories they told echoed those of long lost Irish relatives in the US.
Jayson Montenegro, a carer from the Philippines, says he came here nearly 13 years ago, leaving behind a son and two daughters. Unable to visit his home, he hasn’t seen them since. He has two grandchildren on the way this year, and is desperate to get home to see everyone.
He says that he didn’t want to leave the Philippines, but felt it was the only way to ensure that his children would have a secure future. Because of his sacrifice, he says, his son is in college, one daughter works in IT and the other works as a midwife.
He describes coming to Ireland as a blessing, because of what it allows him to provide for his children. But finds it sad at times.
“They can look after themselves in future,” he says. “But they miss me when they need me and I’m not there.”
In 2014, Montenegro’s father passed away, and he couldn’t go home for the funeral. It’s hard to care for other people when you couldn’t even care for your dad, he says.
“It’s the same as the Irish in the US who miss their families, but can’t go home for funerals or weddings,” he says. “But the hardest is when you lose someone.”
Irene, who is also from the Philippines, has an Irish lilt to her accent after living here for nine years. She didn’t want to give her surname because of her precarious status.
She lived in Cork, Kerry, and Meath, she said, before recently moving to Dublin, where she works as a childminder.
She left her son back in the Philippines with her husband. After too many broken promises about returning, year after year, he doesn’t want to talk to her. She plans to stay here, though, until she’s covered his college expenses.
Montenegro and Irene are two of the leaders of Justice for the Undocumented – a group established by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) to campaign for a regularisation scheme.
It started with just six people in 2010, says Aoife Murphy of MRCI, but now there are roughly 1,400– all long-term undocumented people.
This is the second event that the group has held to coincide with St Patrick’s week, when Irish leaders go to America to ask for the regularisation of undocumented Irish people there.
The turnout is about double what it was last year. It would appear the cause is gaining momentum.
“They should start here,” says Montenegro.
“It’s a bigger and bigger issue every year,” says Murphy. “And it’s really one that’s not going to go away.”
Irene feels the same. “We feel it’s not going to be long now,” she says.
Once a government is formed, the group plans to lobby for a regularisation scheme, and maybe host a conference to coincide with the release of new statistics.
Their prospects for success depend on the parties that are in government, and on who the next justice minister is, says Murphy.
Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil have all spoken out in support of a regularisation scheme. Fine Gael hasn’t.
In January, outgoing Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said in the Oireachtas that she had no plans to introduce one.
Fitzgerald said the scheme MRCI has proposed isn’t possible, because, under EU regulations, regularisation must be done on a case-by-case basis. Murphy says that what MCRI proposed was a case-by-case programme.
Fitzgerald’s predecessor, Alan Shatter, seemed slightly warmer to the idea, says Murphy. So, as far as Murphy’s concerned, a new minister might mean the possibility of progress, regardless of which party they are from.
If Fianna Fáil steps into government, and its spokesperson for justice and equality, Niall Collins, takes the seat, then there might be a better chance – they have spoken strongly in favour of a regularisation scheme.
Collins was on last year’s Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, which recommended that the government introduce a regularisation programme.
A couple of months later, he introduced a bill to the Dáil that would have allowed residency rights for undocumented migrants who have lived here for two years or more. It didn’t float, but this issue remains a priority for him and Fianna Fáil, according to a spokesperson for the TD.
Young, Paperless and Powerful
There are about 26,000 people in Ireland who are undocumented, MRCI estimates. This includes both adults and children.
It’s often forgotten that the city is home to undocumented children, says Murphy. “A lot of [teenagers] have been here eight to 12 years, so they’ve really grown up in Ireland, but they don’t tell anyone that they’re undocumented.”
Last summer, MRCI set up a group for them called Young, Paperless and Powerful.
“It was kind of their first time speaking in a group outside their family about being undocumented,” says Murphy. “And they’re like normal Irish teenagers, but they’re there talking about how they have to lie to their friends.”
At 22, Melvin is one of them. He’s lived here for ten years, has a strong Dublin accent and Conor McGregor is his idol.
He followed his mother here from Mauritius at the age of ten, passing through immigration checks by saying he was just visiting his mother, he says.
Growing up, he recalls, he had difficulties sitting his leaving certificate without a PPS number, and couldn’t go on trips abroad with his local youth club.
“I’d get picked to go, but I’d tell them I don’t want to go. I didn’t tell them, ‘I can’t go.’ I’d say, ‘I don’t want to go to Germany,’ or whatever. De ye get me?” he said.
After school, he couldn’t go to college. For the past five years, he has been a volunteer at his youth club.
Both Irene and Montenegro say the first thing they would do if they were regularised would be to go back to their first home and see their families. But Melvin doesn’t have links with Mauritius, like they do with the Philippines.
His answer is much simpler. He would travel, he would work, he would go to college.
“I wouldn’t have to ask my ma for a tenner to go out or to get a haircut,” he says. “It’s no problem really, but inside that stings.”
If something happened to his mother, he doesn’t know what he would do.
“I’m like a ghost,” he says. “The young people have a lot to give, but we can’t move forward. It’s time for the government to open their eyes.”
Last November, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney announced a regularisation scheme for undocumented workers in the Irish fishing industry.
This came after an investigative report by The Guardian showed undocumented workers on Irish fishing vessels working for days without sleep for less than minimum wage. The scheme was in place by February.
This was done to tackle exploitation, but many other undocumented workers are also exploited, says the MRCI’s Murphy.
Irene is happy in her current job, but previously worked at a big company as a childminder.
She did long hours, whenever they wanted. From gardening to cleaning, any task her employer thought she was capable of, she would have to do.
Murphy says undocumented people are exploited because they can’t complain to authorities for fear of being deported.
“In fairness, the government acted very swiftly on this,” says Murphy. “It’s like great, now go ahead and do that for everyone else if it’s that straightforward.”
The scheme for fishermen could be a good model to follow for all undocumented workers, she says. It would appear all that’s holding this back is lack of political will.
“We are not a burden,” says Montenegro. “We are here to tell people that we are paying taxes and helping the country recover.”
As he sees it, a regularisation scheme would mean even more tax contributions, and he doesn’t understand why the government wouldn’t be in favour of this.
MRCI estimates that it would generate €18.3 million each year in direct taxation. Says Montenegro: “It could be used for homelessness.”