With a smile, Eugenio Antonio pulls a few pieces of paper out of a grey bag. They flap in the wind.
He has printed off part of the Immigration Act 2004, the bit with the rules for who has to pay registration fees – and who doesn’t.
He follows its lines with his index finger until he finds what he’s looking for, in black and white. “The spouse or surviving spouse of an Irish citizen,” he reads aloud.
They, the law says, don’t have to pay the standard €300 immigration registration fee.
But despite being married to an Irish citizen since 2011, Antonio was regularly asked to pay that by the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) office in Leixlip in Co. Kildare, even when he tried to push back.
It is hard to argue with immigration officers and be heard, he said, and when he wrote to the department, they said it was up to Gardaí to decide whether a fee applies.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that people like Antonio who are charged out of turn should let immigration officers know that they’re the spouse of an Irish citizen. “Then the registration fee would not be payable.”
If they are charged anyway, the spokesperson said, “The person should engage with the GNIB office in Leixlip in relation to the issue and any refund that may arise if appropriate.”
A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána, which handles immigration registrations outside Dublin did not respond to queries before the deadline.
Show Me the Money
Antonio says immigration officers have known for at least seven years that he is married to an Irish citizen.
He took his wife to the GNIB office twice, he says, but the officers still told him he should pay.
“The fact that my wife is present there, and they say to her face and my face that I don’t belong to this category, to me, that’s an insult,” said Antonio, on 2 April, sitting outside Love Supreme café in Stoneybatter.
Antonio’s residency is not off the back of his marriage, which seems to be why immigration officers insisted on charging him.
GNIB officers often misinterpret the law, assuming that the fee waiver only applies to people with marriages tied to migration statuses, says Wendy Lyon, partner and solicitor at Abbey Law.
She’s had “quite a few” clients unlawfully charged fees in and outside Dublin, she says. “Always someone who was married to an Irish citizen but has residency on a different basis.”
Lyon represents Antonio and has intervened twice to stop the immigration office from charging him.
In a letter to her law firm on 1 June 2021, a Garda detective superintendent says that Lyon is correct to say that people like Antonio shouldn’t pay.
“And if you have any examples of where an Irish citizen Spouse has been charged a registration fee I would be grateful if you refer them to this office for review,” it says.
Lyon says the Department of Justice also always sides with her when she complains. “But then the next person goes in and is charged the fee.”
Antonio says that when he tried to be unrelenting and stood his ground at the immigration office in Kildare, the officer just refused to register him.
In a chain of emails between Antonio and a Garda at the GNIB office in Leixlip from August 2018, the officer says that they have a letter from the Justice Minister saying Antonio’s** **registration certificate can be issued “upon payment of the appropriate fee”.
Antonio emailed back asking about the law that requires him to pay.
The officer’s response is short and confident: “You do not fall into this category ‘spouse of Irish’ as you have permission to remain here in exceptional circumstances.”
“I am well aware of the documents you sent me. The fee still applies to you,” says the email.
This year, after hiring Lyon again, Antonio finally had his immigration permission renewed without paying anything.
Lyon says she wrote to the GNIB headquarters. “To complain that the local officer was refusing to renew him unless he paid the fee.”
Between 2018 to 2021, the Department of Justice brought in €138 million from immigration registration payments, its figures show.
Lyon says that Garda immigration officers can’t come up with their own interpretation of the law.
“The regulation does specify the circumstances. GNIB can’t put additional conditions on them,” she says.
Guards shouldn’t be in charge of registering immigration status at all, she says. “It should be a function of a civil office.”
Local immigration officers at the GNIB can make the registration process harder to navigate, she says.
“They repeatedly overstep their role, make up rules that don’t exist, give legal advice that they’re not qualified to give and that simply is inaccurate,” says Lyon.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that Minister Helen McEntee’s recently published Justice Plan 2022 sets out strategies for transferring GNIB’s immigration responsibilities to the department.
The policy is in line with the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and part of their efforts in executing them, they said.
The Department of Justice plans to launch a pilot transfer of registration-related powers from local GNIB offices to its Immigration Service Delivery team by the third quarter of 2022, says its Justice Plan.
For Antonio, he says, it’s about seeing everyone equally benefiting from a law that sets out to cut them some slack.
“Once I prove that I belong to this category, the immigration cannot discriminate me and demand that I have to pay the fees,” he said.