by Denis Staunton
Sat, Mar 03, 2007
America:When graphic designer Deirdre Foy moved to New York from Dublin 11 years ago, she was just 24 and the world seemed to be at her feet. Sponsorship from a US company meant she could work legally, and when she decided to change jobs a few years later her new employer agreed to sponsor her too.
It was not until she moved to a third job in 2001, a few months before September 11th, that things started to go wrong. The attacks that day spooked her employer and the job fell through, leaving Foy with no job and no legal status in the US.
"It was about Christmas after 9/11 when I realised that everything was just a disaster," she said.
Next Wednesday, Foy will join thousands of undocumented Irish citizens from across the US in Washington DC for a rally in support of comprehensive immigration reform.
The timing is auspicious, as the Senate this week started discussing reform options that could allow an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to remain in the US and eventually apply for citizenship.
Republican senators John McCain and Chuck Hagel and Democratic senators Edward Kennedy and Chuck Schumer are among those who have agreed to speak at the rally, which is organised by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR).
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton came to an ILIR rally last year and her rival for the party's nomination, Barack Obama, wrote in this newspaper last month in support of the Irish immigration rights movement.
Foy, who works as a freelance art director, acknowledges that she is in a better position than many illegal immigrants in the US. She still has a driver's licence and the nature of her work means she has little difficulty making a living.
She has not been back in Ireland, however, for six years and she says that the separation from friends and family is the biggest burden of her undocumented status. So, now that the Irish economy is so buoyant, why does she not just go home for good?
"I've lived in this country for so long and I love the lifestyle. I love the opportunities afforded to me even in the situation I'm in. My heart is here," she said.
Brian McKenna's four-week-old son Luke, who was born in New York, can grow up as an American citizen but McKenna himself has little hope of attaining legal status without comprehensive immigration reform. A plumber from Co Monaghan who now runs his own small contracting business, McKenna, who is now 30, came to the US on a visa waiver nine years ago and decided to stay.
He has no social security number and his driver's licence has expired, leaving him dependent on colleagues to travel from job to job.
Financially, he is doing well enough to own two houses and his firm employs up to six people at any given time.
For him, too, the inability to visit Ireland is the most painful consequence of living in the US illegally, and he argues that the immigration rules are especially tough on people who have not had a third-level education.
"There are absolutely no visas worth a damn for people with a trade - a plumber, a carpenter, anyone in that category," he said.
ILIR chairman Niall O'Dowd is "about 50 per cent confident" that an immigration reform Bill will be approved by Congress by the end of this year. He says the Democratic victory in last November's congressional elections has changed the climate in Washington for the better, but still believes that pressure from the Taoiseach when he visits the US later this month could be crucial.
"The Irish Government will hopefully reinforce very strongly the message we're bringing next week. You can't underestimate the power of that, because when the Irish Government speaks, their voice is really heard on Capitol Hill," he said.
For McKenna, progress on immigration reform in Congress this year will determine his future. "I can let it ride for a year or two but after that, if I'm going nowhere, I'm just going to have to get whatever I have sorted out here and move on," he said.