America’s undocumented Irish who can't come home for Christmas

US Letter: Children in one Chicago family will visit Ireland without their parents this year

The day after Christmas, Neil and Sandra will drive their two US-born children, aged 13 and 10, to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to catch a flight to Ireland.

It will be the first time that the children have visited the town where their parents grew up and emigrated from together 20 years ago. They are returning for their cousin's wedding in Buncrana, Co Donegal.

"Oh there will be some tears," says Sandra (43) in a Donegal lilt that disguises the two decades she has spent in the United States. The most recent trip home taken by either of them was when Neil (45) took a risk as an undocumented immigrant 15 years ago to fly back for his father's funeral.

His mother is 81 now. When they chat by phone or over FaceTime or Skype, he and his mother do not talk about the fact that his children – who were not even born when he last visited home – will be travelling back to Ireland for their first time without their parents. It is too heartbreaking.


“My mother is pretty much like every other Irish mother. She doesn’t like to talk about it. It is just the way it is. One minute she is crying and the next moment she is laughing,” he said.

Christmas is a traumatic time for the thousands of undocumented Irish living in the US who cannot return home to their loved ones without facing a lengthy ban for visa infringements if caught.

Family tragedy

For this couple, their children’s trip home is even more difficult. Their nephew who is getting married later this month is the older brother of one of the victims of a horrific traffic accident on the Inishowen Peninsula in July 2010 that claimed eight lives.

Sandra’s undocumented status meant she was unable to return for the funeral. The family gathering later this month will be the first Irish wedding among that next generation of her family. It will be an emotional day.

She is sad to be missing it and sending her children back, accompanied by another nephew who is legal in the US, but she acknowledges that she and her husband are responsible for the situation their family is in.

“The thought of them going without us is tough but that is a choice that we made. We have to stand by it 20 years later,” she said.

Time is against them too. Sandra’s mother is in her late 70s and her father in his late 80s. “It will be nice for them to see them alive there,” she said of her children’s visit to her parents.

Neil, a construction worker who has had his own business for 19 years and pays US taxes, is equally philosophical but he feels that their US citizen children should not be disadvantaged by the choices their parents made. “It is very, very sad that it has come to that but there is no point in depriving my kids in not going back,” he said.

The couple were deeply nervous about Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric and his threat to deport all illegal immigrants but the Republican softened his position in the latter stages of the campaign, focusing on a plan to deport undocumented immigrants who had committed serious crime.

“At the start I was definitely scared with Trump but what is going to happen here? Obama wasn’t able to get anything pushed through. For us it cannot get any worse,” said Neil.

Trump appointee

Still, the president-elect's appointment this week of Stephen Miller, a top campaign aide, to serve as a senior policy adviser in the White House does not augur well for illegal immigrants, Irish or otherwise. Miller, a former staffer to Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's pick for attorney general, was instrumental in Sessions's assault on a 2013 immigration Bill, the last great chance for the undocumented.

Neil, Sandra and millions of other undocumented immigrants will be watching to see whether Trump will play his preferred role of deal-maker in office from January 20th and that his campaign pledges will be starting bids.

"Nobody can even speculate at this point," said Orla Kelleher, executive director of the Aisling Irish Centre in New York which helps undocumented Irish.

“We will just have to wait and see, and hopefully the Irish Government will do all they can for the undocumented Irish here. That’s where I will see our best hope to work with the government here.”

Neil has told his children to take plenty of photographs during their trip home, of the local supermarket where he bought sweets as a child and the local chip shop their granny has promised to take them to.

“Me and Sandra flew out on the same flight 20 years ago,” he said. “We never in our wildest dreams thought that we would be coming to America and we would be leaving our kids to fly home to Ireland alone.”