Crackdown on undocumented/illegal migrants in the US could see Irish caught in crossfire

Crackdown on undocumented/illegal migrants in the US could see Irish caught in crossfire

The current Trump administration is the most hostile to immigrants in recent US history, writes Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí.

Mr Trump’s broader agenda of racist discourse has been accompanied by a scapegoating of immigrants as criminals, rapists and law-breakers, with a focus on Muslims, Mexicans and people from the Global South more generally.

His key campaign commitment to ‘build a wall’ between the US and Mexico remains unfulfilled, but it and the broader anti-immigrant and xenophobic statements made by the White House have enormously envenomed public discourse concerning immigration.

Matters have been greatly worsened by the inhumane treatment meted out to migrants, with the separation of children from their parents and the detention of some migrants in appalling conditions.

The focus on ‘illegal’ or ‘undocumented’ migrants needs to be seen in the light of broader debates around the issue of immigration in the US, a traditionally pro-immigrant country but also one where debates on the topic have always been tainted by racially biased perspectives.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 was supposed to put an end to undocumented migration (whether via illegal entry or over-stays) while offering an amnesty or route to regularisation to many.

However, it was not successful, for a variety of reasons, and the succeeding decades saw a substantial increase in the number of undocumented migrants in the US to the present estimate of more than ten million, the vast majority from Central and South America.

Efforts to deal with the challenge of undocumented or illegal immigration have been made over the decades.

Some of those which came closest to succeeding were bipartisan in nature, such as the proposals put forward by the late senators Edward Kennedy (Democrat) and John McCain (Republican).

Ultimately all such attempts proved unsuccessful, something which can partially be explained in light of the post-9/11 climate of anti-immigrant concern and by a shift in the demographics of US society itself.

Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí
Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí

Mr Trump’s use of race and immigration as populist vote-getting issues against this backdrop goes some way to explaining the present impasse.

While the current crackdown by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) service has been ordered by the White House, it should be noted that numerous municipalities have stated that they will not cooperate with it.

Irish undocumented migrants are not the target of the current campaign but that does not mean they might not be caught in the crossfire.

There may be somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Irish undocumented migrants in the US at present (not 50,000 as sometimes claimed).

This is a far lower figure than in the late 1980s.

On that occasion, a variety of special visa programmes ultimately resolved many outstanding issues, or people returned home or moved elsewhere.

Nowadays it is likely that a bullish administration will be less inclined to compromise.

Finally, it should also be borne in mind that Mr Trump’s threats, while confrontational in style, have often delivered less than promised.

In particular, he may not wish to risk alienating the very important Hispanic voting constituency ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

That, and the fact that many cities are less than enthusiastic about pursuing migrants, may blunt the edge of ICE’s campaign.

Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí is a geographer and specialist in Migration Studies in the Department of Geography, University College Cork.

He has taught, researched and published extensively on migration to and from Ireland over nearly three decades and was Principal Investigator of a major national survey on emigration in 2012/2013.

Currently, he is involved in a cross-sectoral initiative to develop Cork as a City of Sanctuary for migrants.

He has written numerous opinion pieces and given interviews for Irish and international media in English, Irish and French.

His previous career was in the Department of Foreign Affairs, with postings in Brussels, Beirut and Paris.

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