Last year, Rachael Fagan Bermingham waited for over two months for an appointment with her local Garda station in Limerick city.
“And I had emailed them eight weeks prior to the expiry of my IRP [Irish Residence Permit] card,” she said.
They told her the average wait time was 12 weeks, but the information wasn’t available anywhere online, she says.
Now there’s a tiny gap in her immigration history. Birmingham worries it could impact her recent citizenship application, she says. “It could possibly be a problem.”
The lack of information about immigration renewal outside of Dublin, like email addresses to contact or average wait times for appointments, is a problem, says Birmingham.
Migrants and immigration lawyers had raised concerns in the past about Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) staff’s unfamiliarity with immigration rules and how difficult it can be to push back when they get it wrong, too.
Rules like who is exempt from paying the €300 IRP cost, or facts like many people with refugee statuses don’t have valid passports from their countries of birth.
“At one point, we had an argument that some GNIB officers in Limerick were telling refugees that they needed to bring in passports,” says Birmingham, who is also a migrant-rights activist.
The Department of Justice has laid out a roadmap to pilot transferring registration-related powers from local GNIB offices to the Department of Justice’s Immigration Service Delivery (ISD) team in Dublin.
Most migrants in Dublin can file an online application with the ISD and renew their papers that way – and the change would mean those outside of Dublin could do the same.
The department’s Justice Plan 2022 said it would launch that pilot in the third quarter of 2022.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that it still plans to run the pilot. But “progress was delayed significantly in 2022 due to the Department’s need to focus on management of the temporary protection programme in response to the war in Ukraine”, they said.
That Gardaí have been involved in handling the renewal of immigration permissions – and its role in checks on immigration statuses – has led to broader concern about trust between migrants and gardaí.
“We are concerned about the implications it has when it comes to trust,” said Luna Lara Liboni, a senior policy officer at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL).
A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána has not yet responded to queries sent on Friday, including one asking about its own concerns about that.
Transfer of power
Birmingham, the woman in Limerick, says even looking up info about immigration renewal online can make you gulp a little.
“When I look up GNIB on the Garda website, it comes under Organised [& Serious] Crime,” she says.
“And like, well, I’m just a migrant. I’m not part of a criminal entity,” said Birmingham by phone on Saturday.
“I think that mindset sort of permeates just everything that GNIB does,” she said.
She has found the attitude at the immigration desk at the Garda station in Limerick to be bad and kind of condescending, she said, which colours her overall perception of gardaí.
The fact that the registration desks in Limerick city’s garda station are out in the open is a problem too, she says. “You hear everything that’s going on next to you, which is a huge breach of GDPR for people.”
Birmingham, who lives outside Limerick city and has to travel in just to renew her papers, says the solution is for ISD staff in Dublin to deal with renewals online.
And “if it could be done online, you know, that frees up all of these appointments for first-time registrations”, she said.
Immigrants registering their immigration status for the first time have to do it in person, usually within around 90 days of arriving in the country.
Every autumn, Birmingham says, when newer international students arrive in Limerick city, they all start chasing a slot with the Garda station before the clock runs down.
Appointments become even more scarce than usual for everyone, she says. Online renewal would make it easier for everyone, she said.
But even in-person registration, Birmingham said, should ideally be left to the ISD staff as more of a neutral entity.
“The Department of Justice are kind of removed from that more of an enforcement side of things,” she says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that its Justice Plan 2023 also commits to agreeing on a roadmap for the transfer of registration and border management functions from GNIB to ISD, the spokesperson said.
Developing that roadmap is currently in the works, and the end goal is to make immigration registration a function of the Department of Justice nationwide, the spokesperson said.
Research by the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR) shows that migrants’ trust levels in the Gardaí are already low, with participants in its reports consistently voicing reluctance about contacting the guards.
Liboni, the senior policy officer at ICCL, says that involving Gardaí in a role like immigration registration doesn’t help with that – and neither does Gardaí’s recent choice of words about safety in Dublin’s inner-city.
In recent weeks, the Gardaí included “immigration checks” as one measure it was taking to clamp down on crime in Dublin city.
Liboni says that might give the impression that immigration and crime are intertwined, fuelling harmful stereotypes about migrants being more prone to violence.
“We are worried, like many other organisations, about what message they’re getting out,” she said.
The statement triggered some backlash from migrants’ rights non-profits, like the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI).
In theory, migrants always have to carry a document proving their legal status in the country and show it to authorities upon request.
But the announcement made it sound like the guards would stop immigrants more as a way to make the city safer, Liboni says.
“There is a wider concern on the methodology of how these immigration checks are carried in relation to risk of ethnic and racial profiling,” she said.
An Garda Síochána doesn’t keep a record of its officers’ daily pedestrian stops, and so doesn’t know if they stop non-White people more often.
In June, Superintendent Seán Fallon, who oversees the Garda National Diversity and Integration Unit, said that recording the ethnicity of people subjected to pedestrian stops might backfire and boost harmful tropes about immigrants and crime.
A Garda spokesperson has not yet responded to queries sent on Friday asking whether it plans to record the data now that it’s focusing on immigration checks, as a way to thwart racial profiling.
Birmingham, the woman in Limerick, says there are immigration-related roles that might need the guards’ involvement.
But registering people’s statuses isn’t one, she said. Decoupling the two, she said, is a step towards a better direction.
“It’s just a paper-based function. In my view, it’s not something that the guards need to be overseeing,” Birmingham said.