A Creaking Immigration System Risks Leaving Many with Uncertain Status

Some immigrants have reported delays of several weeks in getting the Irish Residence Permit (IRP) cards that they need to prove they’re legally allowed to live, work, or study in the country.

One woman, meanwhile, was threatened by the Department of Justice with the possibility of deportation, after she filed an application to renew her status but hadn’t paid a fee – because a new online system didn’t have that as an option.

It’s all evidence of flaws in the department’s systems for processing immigration applications – flaws that predated the current pandemic yet have worsened with the measures brought in since, says Brian Killoran, CEO of the Immigrant Council of Ireland.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that they have asked their development team to look into the matter and said that they are looking into the possibility of re-examining how they phrase correspondence with applicants, which some immigrant advocates have called “hostile”.

Waiting for Proof

Among those affected by the creaky and backlogged immigration system are first-time immigrants, who have reported delays getting their IRP cards, due to a backlog of renewal applications.

People need IRP cards to prove they can live and work here, and non-European immigrants have to show them to immigration officers to get back into the country if they go overseas.

More than 4,500 first-time immigration application appointments with the registration office at Burgh Quay have been cancelled since March, says a spokesperson at the Department of Justice.

First-timers to the state must go in person to the Irish Immigration and Naturalisation Services (INIS) office in Burgh Quay in central Dublin. They can’t register with the INIS online.

A spokesperson for the department said that first-time immigration applicants in Dublin, who must physically attend the Burgh Quay office, would be prioritised for receiving their registration certificates over long-term immigrants.

To date, more than 200 appointments have been provided, says the spokesperson.

But some first-time immigrants, however, are still trying to line up appointments to get their IRP cards, for several weeks, according to Colin Lenihan, an information service coordinator at the Immigrant Council of Ireland.

Lenihan said that not having an IRP card because of the pandemic is affecting people’s lives and livelihoods.

“People have not been able to get employment. They can’t get their driving licences, and I have seen cases where people were denied child benefits,” he said.

Also Affected

Long-term immigrants also say they’re having problems of different sorts with their visa renewals, from having scant time to purvey all the documents necessary for IRP reboots to difficulties registering with the INIS’s new online registration system.

In July, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that immigration permissions due to expire between 20 July and 20 August, would automatically be renewed for one month.

People would be considered legally in the state even if their IRP cards weren’t valid any more, said the minister.

Giving people just a month’s grace for renewals isn’t enough given the backlog of immigration cases, says Lenihan, adding that he’d like to see an extension until December.

People with visas that run out on 21 August are especially “worried and perplexed”, he said. They would miss out on the automatic renewal scheme by a single day.

“I get so many calls from people who say, ‘Well, my immigration status ends on the 21st, and I don’t qualify for this automatic renewal system,’” he said.

Crying out for Reform

“Ireland’s immigration system has long been crying out for reform,” says Killoran, of the Immigrant Council of Ireland.

The recent Covid-19-related disruptions have only magnified pre-existing cracks in the administration, said Killoran.

There’s a possible human cost to all this too, he said. Applicants will be penalised if, because the system is messed up, their visa renewals are delayed.

“Problems then come when they legitimately apply for visa renewals or even citizenship applications and get penalised for delays which weren’t their fault,” he said.

According to the INIS website, applicants must usually renew their permissions to stay in the country “during the 2 week period before expiry” of their IRP cards – but during the pandemic this has been extended to 30 days.

“Future applications could be affected by gaps in your immigration record, if you do not renew in time,” the INIS website says.

Gaps in immigration records could not only mean that future visa renewals get rejected, but citizenship applications might also be turned down, said Lenihan.

In many cases, bureaucratic malfunctions are to blame for those gaps, he said.

“With this intermittent registration and this online system, there will eventually be gaps in people’s status, and that is going to have a huge impact on future citizenship applications when it shouldn’t,” he said.

Flawed Systems

Some have been able to apply to renew visas online.

Since the roll-out of the new online system earlier in July, more than 12,000 visa renewal applications have been received “from people who would otherwise have had to attend Burgh Quay in person”, said a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.

But online inefficiencies have added to confusion and, in some cases, fear for applicants, says Lenihan.

One person got a letter of refusal for her application made in July that was littered, says Lenihan, with “hostile terminology” namely the use of words like “illegal” or “deportation”.

The woman, the de-facto partner of an Irish citizen, was refused permission to stay because she had failed to pay a €300 renewal fee. There wasn’t a way to pay through the website, though.

According to the INIS website, a de-facto relationship “means you and your partner are both committed to a shared life together to the exclusion of all others, as if you were married.”

“Applications may take 12 months to process,” the website says.

“Please note that since your application has been rejected, you may now be considered illegally residing in the State and may become the subject of a Deportation Order if you do not renew your permission,” the woman’s refusal letter says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that technical mistakes were responsible for that refusal.

“It would appear the system is treating an application for a de-facto partner as if it was a category for which the fee is waived,” the spokesperson said.

The department’s “development team” is looking to rectify the issue. “We apologise for any inconveniences caused,” they said.

Lenihan of the Immigrant Council said, though, that inflammatory terms such as “deportation” and “illegal” indicate a lack of accountability on the part of the department.

The current approach fails to take into account instances when the issue is related to dysfunctions in the system, he says.

The hostile language is something he’s taken issue with for a long time, he says. “You’re using this language and phraseology for someone whose application was rejected over pure technical issues.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that letters are worded that way “to ensure applicants are unambiguously clear as to the possible consequences of failing to re-register”.

The idea is to avoid “anyone becoming unlawfully resident in state through a misunderstanding”, they said.

“We do accept that the current wording may cause anxiety amongst applicants and we are re-examining the wording and will rephrase it more appropriately,” the spokesperson said.

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Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

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