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Javeria Ansari’s husband, Farrukh Mirza, left their home in Lucan last September to go out and buy groceries, she says.
He video-called her from the store to say he wasn’t feeling well. They told each other everything, said Ansari last Thursday during a video call from her parents’ house in Pakistan.
Staff there gave him aspirin and called an ambulance and the last words that Ansari remembers him saying were, she says, “I’m feeling quite relaxed now”.
“Then someone took the camera away from him,” said Ansari, with a slight frown. That was the last she saw or heard from him. It was a heart attack, she later learnt.
While Ansari and her two daughters were left struggling with the grief at the loss, they also, she says, had lost their income.
Mirza had been a software engineer, and the family’s sole breadwinner, said Ansari.
Partners of deceased tax-payers can apply to the Department of Social Protection for a weekly payment. But for Ansari, whether or not to apply was a tough choice.
She had to weigh up her financial insecurity with the possible impact that taking the grant would have on her immigration status – and, more specifically, her and one of her daughters’ applications for citizenship, which had been pending since 2018.
The reason for her concern is the continued lack of guidelines on how the Department of Justice determines whether applicants are of “good character”, which is one of the requirements that those who apply have to meet to become citizens.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice says applicants’ dependence on social funds shouldn’t “normally” impact its consideration of their character, as long as it’s “secured through a legal entitlement and/or secured through honest endeavours”.
Solicitors, meanwhile, say they’ve seen different responses to applications from those who have accessed social welfare.
The department has said that it is working on clear guidelines. “It is hoped that the guidelines will be published on the Immigration Service Delivery website by the end of the year,” said a department response to a Freedom of Information request.
In the end, Ansari opted to apply for the widow’s grant. “I was obviously thinking about my financial status. I didn’t have any resources at the time,” she says.
An Uncertain Choice
Ansari and her daughter are two of roughly 6,300 people who, department figures show, have been waiting for more than two years for a decision on their citizenship applications.
(As of 30 August 2021, more than 22,000 citizenship applications are being processed, said a spokesperson.)
The wait reinforces her fears, Ansari says, that accessing social benefits is a stain on one’s character in the eyes of the Department of Justice.
Her husband had signed something to promise that his wife wouldn’t become a “burden on the state” if she came here as his dependent, she says.
“I didn’t want to be a burden on the state by any means. I didn’t want anything to affect my nationality,” she says.
Non-EU migrants who need a visa to enter Ireland, whether they’re coming here to study or work, have to include a signed letter to their visa application promising that they will not become “a burden on the state”.
The citizenship application form also asks would-be citizens if they have received social assistance payment “or other state support” in the previous three years.
But “I had no other source of income and no access to my husband’s accounts because our accounts weren’t joint; also his company’s pension was taking so long,” says Ansari.
Ansari was dependent on her husband, she says, because she couldn’t work in Ireland on the immigration stamp she was on.
By the time she earned the right to work, her kids had been born. She was busy caring for them, says Ansari.
Others have made different decisions because of the ambiguity around the good character requirement. In the past, some have said they’re reluctant to criticise the government.
Majo Rivas says she avoided driving partly to dodge potential speeding or parking tickets that could later be seen as evidence of poor character.
“I knew that minor driving offences that Irish people wouldn’t bat an eye on can and do affect a citizenship application,” says Rivas. “I guess I tried to prevent that as much as possible.”
She cycled, bussed, walked and relied on her husband for lifts, she says. “I could make that choice. Others can’t.”
How They Judge
At the moment, government officials assessing “good character” look at An Garda Síochána vetting, home-country police clearances, and adherence to the laws and regulations of the state, said Fianna Fail Minister for State at the Department of Justice James Browne in the Dáil in late July.
“This includes laws and regulations relating to revenue, social welfare and driving and transport,” he said.
But “there is no settled or fixed interpretation of the words “good character”, said a response to a recent request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
“It means that the applicant’s character and conduct must measure up to reasonable standards of civic responsibility as gauged by reference to contemporary values,” the response says.
Most people meet the threshold for “good character” but for those who don’t, officials at the Department of Justice have to write up a submission explaining why, it said.
“Staff do not currently have a set of written guidelines to operate from in creating individual submissions,” said the response. “But it is the intention of the Department to remedy this situation as soon as possible.”
At the moment, staff rely on internal discussions and previous submissions to create new submissions, they said.
When it comes to an applicant’s finances, “there is no specific criteria in relation to a required income level and income levels do not form part of the consideration”, they said.
“As long as any income, including any social welfare payments, is secured through a legal entitlement and/or secured through honest endeavours, the matter should not normally adversely impact the consideration of an applicant’s good character,” they said.
Cathal Malone, an immigration solicitor in Dublin, says accessing social welfare does not fall under the good character criteria for citizenship.
“Actually, good character does mean something specific, and the courts have overturned decisions on good character on a number of occasions,” says Malone.
Good character, Malone says, does not mean an immigrant should live up to unrealistic superhuman standards not expected of others. That has been established through various court judgements, he says.
“You wouldn’t say an Irish person is of bad character if they had recourse to social welfare if they lost their job, or it’s against the ordinary standards of Irish civic decency to go on the dole or whatever,” Malone says.
But Catherine Cosgrave, an immigration and human rights solicitor at the Immigrant Council of Ireland, says that in years past she has seen applicants for citizenship refused for violating the good character requirement by accessing social welfare funds.
Although, “ I’m not sure how prevalent this would be now as a basis for refusing citizenship,” she said.
One issue is that there’s no appeals process really, she says. “However, we would typically seek an administrative review of such a decision prior to issuing judicial review proceedings in the High Court.”
In one case, she says, an applicant, a long-term worker, was on disability benefits after an accident on the job.
For that case, she says, “the admin review was refused and we issued proceedings, which ultimately did not go to hearing and the matter was subject of confidential settlement”, says Cosgrave.
Malone, the immigration solicitor, says that if not becoming a “burden on the state” is a residency condition for visa-required migrants, the minister should revoke their permissions once they breach it while she still can.
It makes little sense to wait until somebody qualifies for citizenship to punish them for violating a residency condition at some earlier stage, he says.
“Because there comes a point when it becomes impossible for the state to remove them, and if the state can’t remove them, then the state has to continue to support them,” Malone says.
“If the state is going to have to continue to support them whether they’re on a Stamp 4 or have an Irish passport, then the whole rationale for refusal doesn’t make sense.”
Malone says unfortunate life events like the sudden death of a family’s breadwinner or losing employment can happen to anybody regardless of their immigration status, which makes the “burden of state” condition unrealistic and difficult to stick to.
Defining Good Character
The Department of Justice says it is now drawing up clear guidelines for “good character”.
Once a draft has been drawn up within the department and officials have engaged with the Office of the Attorney General, they intend to consult with outside parties on the draft, said the FOI response.
Including engaging with “NGOs active in advocacy for immigrants’ rights”, they said. “It is the Minister’s intention to consult as widely as possible in the creation of these important guidelines.”
Rivas, the person who avoided driving while her application was being considered, says that the new guidelines should be “reasonable and proportionate”.
In the past, simple interactions with the Gardaí “from being a witness or being questioned without being charged” have led to refusals.
“There should be a lot more safeguards around that, or you know a parking ticket, sometimes people don’t know that they weren’t meant to park somewhere,” Rivas says.
Minor traffic incidents often have contextual nuances and the new guidelines should acknowledge that, says Rivas.
Shashank Chakerwarti, a peace commissioner in the city, says he’s choosing to have faith that the officials at the Department of Justice will be reasonable and empathetic when drawing up the new guidelines.
“But I do want to tell them that whatever you write, just be compassionate towards these individuals because immigration is a journey, and these people have ended their journey in the Republic,” he says.
Rivas, who is now an Irish citizen, says Irish officials can’t grasp the significance of an Irish passport for non-European migrants.
“I used to travel with my marriage cert because I was afraid that one day, they might not let me in. It can’t be seen as a luxury, it’s definitely important,” says Rivas. “It gives you security.”
Ansari says that her husband’s death made her acutely aware of the fragility of life. Security is all that she wants for her daughter, who is still navigating her father’s absence, says Ansari.
One night in February, Ansari was feeling especially hopeless and homesick, she says and impulsively wrote an emotional email to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.
It tells the minister about how her husband had gone to Tesco to pick up groceries and died there, and how the experience has left her with a fear of loss, one that never leaves her.
It says that she misses her parents and was unable to travel for a while “because of my pending nationality and virus situation”.
“I’m so devastated and want to go and cry in my mom’s lap,” says the email. “Please consider my request for my nationality application’s approval.”
Ansari says she woke up mortified and embarrassed the day after. The minister never wrote back, anyway, she says. (McEntee went on maternity leave at the end of April.)
“I thought, why did I send her that email? She must be thinking I’m so needy or something like that,” says Ansari.
But, as for Shansley, her daughter, Ansari says that citizenship would be a way for her to feel secure.
Ansari wants her daughter to get her Irish passport, she says. “In case something happens to me.”