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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Let them have Tayto!

The front page of the Irish Times yesterday (Thursday) featured a picture of 2,500 undocumented Irish people working in the US who converged on Washington in support of the Kennedy-McCain Bill that would grant the 11m of America's illegal immigrants a chance to apply for citizenship.

It brought to mind a woman that I worked with in the US three summers ago. I was on my J1 student working Visa and was working in a resort hotel in the Hamptons in New York state. My boss hadn't hired many Irish students for the few years prior to this - the summer staff consisted mainly of Eastern European students.

There was one woman working on the reception in this hotel. She was from Donegal and had come over to the US on a Morrison Visa in the 1980s but stayed there illegally when her visa expired.

She has lived in the US for nearly 20 years but yet cannot leave the country as she most certainly would not get back in. She drives illegally, cannot avail of full banking facilites, cannot travel. She works extremely hard in a number of seasonal jobs. She has built up a life in America - she has a teenage daughter, her family, her friends. Yet by the time I met her, she hadn't been home to Donegal in over a decade. She loved talking to me and my two friends about Ireland and her life back home. Everytime she spoke, her words were tinged with profound sadness. Yes, she had created a life for herself in the US but she didn't officially belong there. She is technically without a home country, a kind of bureaucratic refugee. Her life is characterised by fear, insecurity and a soul-sapping liminality.

We left the US soon after Labour Day and she was visibily upset and envious that we were leaving for home. I meant to stay in touch with her and send her some uniquely Irish things that all people abroad crave: Bachelors Beans, Meanies, Chipsticks, Cadbury chocolate and, of course Tayto! I never did though and I feel bad. I just got back into the swing of things here in Ireland and that summer faded into memory.

The topicality of this drive by the Irish lobby in the US at the moment has made me think more and more about this lady and all the thousands of other Irish people in the same position as her. It's such a sad situation to be from one country and live in another and yet be deprived of fully and freely engaging with both. Let's hope that the law is changed to allow these Irish people the chance to collect their Tayto crisps in person and legally bring them back to their homes for their American family and friends to consume!!

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