For Many Long-Term Undocumented Immigrants Unconditional Amnesty Continues to Remain an Unwavering Hope

When an economic crisis began looming over Brazil in 2014, some found a way out of financial hardship through immigration.

Like one man who used to own a restaurant in his hometown of Belo Horizonte, the dynamic industrial capital of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second most populous state.

By 2015, a fully fledged economic crisis had unleashed an array of financial challenges for this man and his family, leading to the eventual closure of his business, that same year.

His sister was an English language student in Dublin at the time. After two years of studying English, she cobbled together expensive tuition fees and enrolled in a master’s programme, and he reckoned he’d join her.

“I wanted to go somewhere to study, and the price of the language course in Dublin was fair,” his sister recently recalled.

She’s a tall woman with a genial smile, who wears large, hoop earrings and often plays with her curly hair while recalling her family’s immigration tales, while playing the role of interpreter for her brother throughout the interview.

The brother, who is calm and warm and wears a quiet smile, understands English, yet still struggles to speak the tongue.

He is now an undocumented immigrant in Dublin city, and like many other residents who lack legal papers, tries to lead a normal life, but the possibility of deportation shadows him. It prompts him to avoid essential services, like going to a doctor or sending his son to the dentist.

For many long-term undocumented immigrants, unconditional amnesty continues to remain an unwavering hope.

Portuguese Travails

The Belo Horizonte native, his wife and their son first stepped off a plane in Dublin Airport in 2017. They were on a 90-day tourist visa. The plan was to try and claim a Portuguese passport which would allow them to stay in Ireland and live alongside his sister, who is now a legal immigrant on a graduate scheme visa (1G).

The man and his family have Portuguese roots and it is not uncommon for Brazilians to have Portuguese ancestry.

In recent years, many Brazilians with Portuguese roots have tried to find an entrance into Europe by applying for a Portuguese passport. It is not, however, always a smooth process.

“We thought he could get a Portuguese passport and stay in Ireland, but it was more complicated than we thought,” his sister said, as her brother quietly nodded.

The woman said that since old data is often not computerised and they couldn’t find the papers that could prove their Portuguese origins, they fell short of the requirement

To apply for Portuguese citizenship, one needs to prove direct Portuguese descendants up to grandparents, if someone’s ancestry is older than that, however, they should reside in Portugal for six years, before applying for citizenship.

The Brazilian man, however, decided to stay in Ireland. He had already secured a job at a car wash in Dublin. The rise of the right-wing party Alliance for Brazil, under the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro gave him extra motivation to stay. He said he believed the economy would remain shaky under Bolsonaro’s leadership.

He decided to continue to work in the car wash to give his 11-year-old son an Irish education.

Living without papers, his voice hit a higher note as he explained his working conditions to his sister.

He said he doesn’t get to earn the minimum wage of €10.10 per hour as his employer knows he is undocumented and vulnerable.

“Yes, they know he’s not legal, he has worked there since more or less the first week he came here. He says working in a car wash is difficult, not many Irish people would want that job,” she said.

The man said that “strong chemicals” used for cleaning cars often burn his hands, and many times, he has had an allergic reaction to various detergents.

He said his clothes get wet and he is sick often, and for a man who never dares to visit a doctor, that is not ideal.

“He says he is scared to go to the doctor because they might ask for some form of ID,” his sister said.

A False Sense of Equality

For the Brazilian worker’s young son, sitting in Irish classrooms with his peers paints an illusion of equality, but when it comes to activities that require a Personal Public Service Number (PPSN), inequality becomes apparent, the boy’s father said.

“He says, the school probably knows, and they keep asking for a PPSN, they always ask for it,” his sister said.

The man recounted to his sister how his son couldn’t go for a dental check-up with other students because the visit required a PPSN.

There are several other activities that he can’t participate in with the main obstacle being his lack of access to a PPSN, as an undocumented child.

“But the goal is to keep him engaged in the school so that he can continue his studies, and he has progressed quite well.”

Fleeing Homophobia

Somewhere else in the city, another Brazilian man lives in a small room with white walls that have peeling paint all over them. A calendar for this year covered with photos of topless, athletically built men hangs on the left wall.

He says that he has plans to make the walls aesthetically pleasing, showing a roll of wallpaper he has recently bought.

The Dublin-based Brazilian, who has a salt-and-pepper beard and a warm and ready laugh, is a gay man.

In 2016, he fled homophobia in his hometown in Mato Grosso, a state in western Brazil, to find refuge in Ireland, and decided to study English at an English-language school in the city.

He was hopeful of enrolling in a third-level education programme in the country once mastering the foreign tongue.

“I was looking at all the other Brazilians who were undocumented, and I was like, ‘No, I’ll never be one of them,’” the man said. He was determined to reside legally in Ireland.

In Mato Grosso, he had studied journalism and was employed as a press officer for a government agency.

In Dublin, however, he looked for menial jobs that didn’t require fluency in English as a student, landing one as a cleaner in a restaurant, saving and paying his taxes.

When weighing his options to embark on a third-level programme, however, he realised that the opportunity laid far out of his reach.

Tuition fees paid by non-European students tend to be much higher than those paid by Europeans. For a bachelor’s programme at an Irish university, international pupils often pay up to €12,000, while a master’s degree costs as much as €16,000.

The man, who said he was already grappling with financial difficulties in Brazil, chose to stay in his new home, regardless, especially after Bolsonaro climbed to power.

He said, age-old, homophobic tendencies still prevail in Brazil, and the ascendance of a conservative government bolstered some to be “overtly anti-gay”.

No Mass Regularisation Planned

The Brazilian man is still paying his taxes to the Irish state, having worked in the same restaurant, for the past five years. Since he became employed as a registered immigrant with a PPSN, taxes are still being deducted from his wage.

“I think my employer knows, but he pretends that he doesn’t, not everyone would be like that,” he said.

Back in April and as the pandemic was raging, a coalition of trade unionists, business leaders and community groups demanded the “urgent regularisation” of undocumented workers, from the government.

They wrote to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that “ now more than ever, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that we are dependent on each other”.

They commended the perseverance of “frontline” undocumented workers who cleaned, took care of the elderly and sold us food, while remaining “on the margins” under the shadow of deportation.

Both Brazilian men said that they are hoping that the current government will grant unconditional amnesty to long-term undocumented migrants who are contributing to the economy by taking on challenging jobs.

The Department of Justice examines cases of undocumented migrants on a “case-by-case basis” and is inviting them to “come forward if they wish to apply to regularise their position in the State”, a spokesperson for the department said.

The department said that in line with the new commitment expressed in the programme for government it is aiming to “create new pathways for long-term undocumented people and their dependents” within 18 months of the formation of the government.

The spokesperson clarified, however, that it is still not considering “mass regularisation” as a feasible option.

“Minister McEntee would encourage any person who is resident in the State without permission to contact her Department or their local immigration office and to take all appropriate steps to regularise their own and their family’s status,” the spokesperson said.

Data released by the department, however, reveals that deportation rates are often higher than permissions to stay for undocumented migrants who turn themselves in, asking for a case review.

In 2018, for example, 358 people received the department’s greenlight to remain in Ireland, while 809 people got served with deportation orders. This number was higher in 2019 when 1,245 deportation orders were issued by the department compared to 245 letters of permission to remain, following case reviews.

According to section 3(6) of the Immigration Act 1999 (as amended), various factors come into play for examining a case. They range from age, duration of stay, employment status, family circumstances to “humanitarian considerations”.

“These factors are examined by the Ministerial Decision Unit of the Department of Justice and Equality,” a spokesperson for the department says.

People who are granted permission to stay will move up to Stamp 4 or Stamp 1 visas, two schemes that allow them to reside and work legally, in Ireland.

Meanwhile, the men both are both cautiously optimistic. Without the promise of amnesty, however, they said it is unlikely that they would risk their situation by going to authorities.

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Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian is a Cork-based freelance journalist whose work has frequently appeared in national and local publications. She likes to report facts with as much style as possible.

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