Maybe I shouldn’t have done it. It wasn’t a nice thing to do but something inside me snapped and I shouted at an old lady. I can’t remember the exact words exchanged now as it was about ten years ago. I was queuing up to buy a ticket outside Tara Street station when the old lady standing beside me began to grumble about the Asian lady working in the ticket office. Her exact words were something along the lines of; ‘those people’ shouldn’t be let into this country to work. I don’t think she was expecting me to roar back at her that her attitude was disgusting and that I thought it was a safe bet that she had brothers or sisters living overseas, and how would she feel if her relatives were treated with such contempt? She didn’t seem impressed with me but she also didn’t have any reply. Maybe I gave her something to think about. Or maybe she just thought I was a cheeky young upstart. Either way, I don’t regret it. There is an attitude among some Irish people that people from other countries are either over here to sponge off the state or take Irish people’s jobs and that they have it handy. Not only is this attitude tiresome, it’s far from the truth.
I was reminded of my outburst at that unsuspecting old lady when I was in a car about two weeks ago, passing by the Garda National Immigration Bureau on Burgh Quay, not far from Tara Street. It was around 11 o’clock at night and there was a queue of people waiting outside. As it turns out, these people are students and migrant workers who are being forced to queue overnight to get an appointment to renew their visas. This has been going on for a number of months, although it seems that the Bureau will soon be joining the rest of us in the 21st century with the implementation of an online system for booking appointments in the New Year. How would that nice old lady have felt if she did have relatives overseas who were being forced to queue up on a cold winter night just to stay in the country they moved to hoping for a better life? She’d probably be annoyed, and rightly so. We’re great at looking out for Irish people who have left these shores but we’re not so great at looking after people that arrive on those same shores, some of whom might even believe our ‘hundred thousand welcomes’ schtick.
Today, Jerry Buttimer chaired an Oireachtas Health Committee meeting on health service issues affecting the Irish diaspora. There are an estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish living in the US at the moment and they are not eligible for routine medical assistance because of their illegal status. Fortunately there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for the undocumented Irish, with President Obama recently announcing that he would be using executive powers to prevent deportation of these people. This also means that Irish people who have been living in America will be able to re-enter the country after visiting home – you can probably be sure that they won’t have to queue up overnight in the cold to secure those re-entry visas.
This is great news and was no doubt helped by high profile visits to Washington DC by then Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore and Sinn Fein heavyweights Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald over the past six months. It’s fantastic to see all of this work going in to protecting the welfare of Irish citizens abroad. Public representatives should be working to protect Irish citizens living abroad but they should also be working to protect those who arrive here hoping to work or study and at the moment they don’t seem to be doing enough on that front. Those 50,000 undocumented Irish citizens probably have a lot of family members of voting age still living here. It would certainly be a lot more votes than the family members of the students and workers queuing in the cold have. But at least some of those family members might have votes. There are around 4,000 people, including 1,600 children, living in direct provision centres who can only dream of such luxuries.
While the queues outside the National Immigration Bureau are a fiasco, the direct provision system is an outright scandal. Entire families are spending an average of four years living in chalets and mobile homes, in conditions that the state’s own watchdog, The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, have deemed to be unsuitable. The people living in these centres aren’t allowed to cook for themselves and their children can’t go on to third level education because they are classed as international students and would have to pay full third level fees of around €10,000 per year. That’s a prohibitive amount when your parents are only receiving an allowance of €19.10 per week. That’s €2.72 per day. To put that in to context, prisoners receive an allowance of €1.70 per day. Only one of those groups of people have committed crimes yet they are both treated in much the same manner and there doesn’t seem to be any will to help these people.
When Gerry Adams was in Washington he said that all the undocumented Irish wanted to do was, “live a full life paying their taxes, and be able to travel between Ireland and the USA without fear of losing their jobs”.
There are people living in Ireland who wish to do the same thing and are being denied those rights. As a nation of emigrants who have made a positive contribution to the countries that we have settled in we should be doing more to help those who wish to do the same in our country.