They got the news yesterday, as they stood in a government building named for John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose portrait hung in their childhood homes back in County Cork.
Paul and Jenny Ladd were told they must leave the United States by Nov. 23, the day after the 44th anniversary of Jack Kennedy's assassination. If Kennedy's 1960 election stands as some high-water mark for this country, proof that an Irish Catholic could be as loyal to the United States as anyone else, then the deportation of Paul and Jenny Ladd surely signals something almost as significant, if entirely less encouraging.
When they landed at Logan Airport 12 years ago, with $250 between them, the first thing the Ladds did was find jobs. Paul had one by nightfall, roofing. Days later, Jenny was painting houses.
The second thing they did was try to legalize their residency status. They couldn't. Call them naïve, but they actually believed that if you worked hard, paid your taxes, and kept your nose clean, eventually you would be embraced as an American. There were two centuries of experience that this approach worked, especially for the Irish, especially here.
For those who say they cut the line, get real. There is no line. The immigration system is broken, and there is neither the political consensus nor courage to fix it. But it is utterly delusional to think that deporting Paul and Jenny Ladd will make this country any safer or better off.
The same government that wouldn't give the Ladds a way to get legal gladly handed them tax identification numbers. But Paul Ladd couldn't renew his driver's license last year, and when his truck was stopped on a routine commercial vehicle check, he and Jenny entered a system that no longer winks at people with freckles and brogues.
Paul Ladd never played the Irish card. He didn't want any special treatment because he looks like half the guys in Marshfield.
"I'm no better than anyone else," he said. "I work. I pay my taxes. I don't bother anyone."
He volunteered to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform, for everyone. He took a bus to Washington, D.C. He looked at the monuments, read the inscriptions, was more inspired than ever to become a legal American. But the immigration bill crashed and burned in the Senate last month, just weeks after it was unveiled with much hoopla.
Now the only chance for the Ladds is to cut a one-shot deal for themselves. Their congressman, Representative Stephen F. Lynch, has asked the House subcommittee on immigration, citizenship, refugees, border security and international law to file a private bill, allowing the Ladds to stay. Their lawyer, Chris Lavery, says it's a long shot, but it's their only shot. US Immigration Judge Eliza C. Klein said she would consider reopening their case if the bill goes forward.
The Ladds are almost embarrassed that they have to make a case just for themselves.
"I'll do it because I love this country and I want to stay here," Jenny Ladd said, standing outside the Kennedy building.
Paul sold his Chevy 5500 work truck, along with the roofing company that he built from scratch. The Ladds sold their house in Norwood; the closing is tomorrow.
The last year has been an emotional roller coaster. The Ladds, who only two months ago thought immigration reform was at hand, are now part of an unprecedented exodus back to Ireland, the reverse of what happened when the potato blight of the 1840s made Boston the most Irish city in America.
Paul Ladd, a bear of a man, is perpetually upbeat, quick with a joke. But this long goodbye, disengaging from work and the life they made here, has worn him down.
"I don't like being idle," he said. "When you're working, you don't have time to dwell on all that can go wrong."
He looked over at City Hall Plaza, as people with coffee cups hurried to work.
"I don't like dwelling, either," Paul Ladd said.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.