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Emily Waszak can’t stand the thought of cooking in her kitchen, she says. Last April, her husband collapsed there.
“He was cooking dinner for me because he cooked me dinner every night,” said Waszak recently, crying.
They’d been so careful, she said. Her husband, Aonghus Cheevers, had diabetes and was on dialysis for kidney disease, making him more vulnerable to serious illness if he contracted Covid-19.
They spent most time indoors. Waszak had left her job at a textile mill right before lockdown. Cheevers, an assistant professor, worked from home. Groceries were delivered.
When Waszak found Cheevers on the kitchen floor, he had already died, she says. He was 43.
Later, Waszak learned that he had Covid-19. They told her a heart condition prompted the death, she can’t remember exactly. “Some kind of medical term,” she says.
She went into self-isolation with her grief. That was hard enough. On top of all that too, she worried about her immigration status.
Waszak’s spouse visa was due to run out in November 2020. She was unsure “if I could maintain my life in Ireland”, she says.
In June 2019, she had applied for Irish citizenship but the process had slowed and stalled with rounds of paperwork – and, in one case, differing instructions from the Department of Justice on what was needed.
Navigating the process while dealing with her husband’s death, and with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has been uncertain and heartbreaking, she says.
“I feel like I’m in this pattern where I can’t start to grieve while this weight of citizenship is never going to go away,” she says. “Until I grieve, I can’t figure out what to do with the rest of my life.”
Waszak is one of roughly 8,700 people who has been waiting between a year and two years for a decision on their citizenship applications.
Roughly 6,000 people have been waiting for more than two years, according to Department of Justice figures. (Almost 24,000 citizenship applications are currently being processed, said a department spokesperson.)
It’s hard to work out why some applications take so much longer to process than others – and why some applicants face more hoops than others – given the lack of clarity around some criteria that applicants have to meet.
In Waszak’s case, misinformation from the government help desk and long gaps with no communication have added to the lengthy ongoing process.
A Slow Start
The Department of Justice is sitting on a pile of citizenship applications. It has advised would-be citizens to stop submitting documents if they need their passports in the coming months.
They have never suspended the receipt or processing of applications, but Covid-19 restrictions have caused major delays “in the issuing of acknowledgment and return of documentation”, the spokesperson said.
For Waszak, the process moved too slowly even before the pandemic.
She applied in June 2019 and only got her passport back in September, she says. During that time she couldn’t leave the country.
She says it was faster and smoother for a friend. “My friend applied a week before me, and she had her passport back in two weeks. She’s already become a citizen.”
Applicants should usually get their passports back in two weeks, says a spokesperson for the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
These days, however, people calling its helplines have reported “being unable to travel for emergency family reasons as a result of their applications being stuck in limbo”, they said.
The Immigrant Council has asked the department to put more resources into its citizenship division to ease the backlog, said the spokesperson.
Tangled in Bureaucracy
Last summer, a year after she sent in her application, Waszak got a letter from the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) asking for a criminal clearance certificate from the United States.
They didn’t say she needed one from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). “So, I asked my father, who is also old, to go get the state one,” she says.
Then, she got an email from INIS’ helpdesk, saying that actually, she needed the FBI one.
Waszak went to a Dublin Garda station to get fingerprinted, a step needed for the FBI check, where a Garda jokingly asked if she knew anyone who had the virus, she says.
It salted her wounds. “I said, ‘Yeah, my husband died in April.’”
“And at that stage, there were plenty of people who still weren’t wearing masks, so it was really stressful and scary,” she says.
She got her FBI clearance in late July 2020, sent it in, and didn’t hear back from INIS until last week.
She searches for the letter on her desk and a small black cat clambers onto her lap. She adopted the cat, she says, to help her cope with loneliness and isolation after her husband’s death.
“Please accept our sincere sympathies on the death of your husband,” she reads from the letter, laughing.
The letter said that Waszak needed to submit “a police clearance from the state of North Carolina” for her application to move to the next stage.
Waszak’s father had already sent her that clearance certificate last summer. Before she had been told she didn’t need that one.
She emailed it over, along with the email that she had been sent telling her that the check she needed was the FBI one.
“Sometimes I feel like they just keep coming back at you, so you break and self-deport or withdraw your application,” she says.
Making the Cut
Background checks help assess a would-be citizen’s character, says a spokesperson for the Justice Department. People have to be of “good character” to get Irish citizenship.
But what that means isn’t set out clearly.
In July last year, the Department of Justice refused to release any internal guidelines under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act on how it judges “good character”, saying they were under review following a court case.
Guidelines would be posted online once that review was done, said the FOI response.
The spokesperson for the Immigrant Council of Ireland said they are concerned about “lack of official guidance” from the department on good character assessments.
Waszak’s solicitor told her that asking for clearance certificates from outside of Ireland was a new condition, she says, on top of the usual Garda vetting requirement.
Asking applicants to present a clean criminal slate from their home countries to prove good character is not a new condition, says the department’s spokesperson.
A thread from March 2019 on an Irish immigration forum shows applicants chatting about requests for home-country clearance certificates.
Ways to evaluate an applicant’s character include but are “not limited to An Garda Síochána vetting, home country police clearance and adherence to the laws and regulations of the State”, said the department spokesperson.
It’s unclear why some applicants are asked for these criminal background checks from other countries, while others aren’t, and what considerations or discretion comes into play. The Department of Justice didn’t respond to a query about that.
Living without an Irish Residence Permit (IRP) these days, Waszak says she fears deportation. She has submitted an online renewal application to INIS, but hasn’t heard back.
Her husband always went with her for immigration renewal, she says.
Migrants who have lost their Irish spouse or civil partners must write to the “Spouses of Irish National Unit” of INIS to ask for an “independent immigration permission”, says a spokesperson for the department.
“I’d written to them multiple times, and they have never told me this,” said Waszak last Friday.
Despite all the challenges, Waszak plans to stay, she says. “I want to be near my husband’s grave.”