Up to 17,000 undocumented migrants “living in the shadows” could become Irish citizens under an amnesty to be announced today.
Of those, 3,000 are believed to be children.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee is to confirm that people living in Ireland illegally will be granted permission to officially reside here.
The scheme, part of her Justice Plan 2021, will be for long-term undocumented migrants and their eligible dependents, as long as specific criteria are met.
Successful applicants will receive immigration permission, access to the labour market and can begin the path to citizenship.
Ms McEntee's move could be seen as boosting Ireland's bid to seek relief for undocumented Irish in the United States under the Joe Biden presidency.
"I believe that in opening this scheme, we are demonstrating the same goodwill and generosity of spirit that we ask is shown to the countless Irish people who left this island to build their lives elsewhere.”
To be considered, those who apply must have a period of four years undocumented residence in the State, or three years in the case of those with children, the plan states.
The scheme will open online for applications in January with applications accepted during the six-month window.
It will be open to those who do not have current permission to reside in Ireland. These are people who perhaps arrived illegally or their permission expired or was withdrawn years ago.
Under the proposal, a fee of €700 will generally apply to family unit applications, including children up to 23 years, to assist in recovering the cost of administration. A fee of €550 will apply to individual applications.
“As the scheme is largely aimed at those who may be economically and socially marginalised as a result of their undocumented status, there will be no requirement for applicants to demonstrate that they would not be a financial burden on the State,” the plan states.
Those with an existing deportation order can apply if they meet the minimum undocumented residence requirement and “applicants must meet standards regarding good character and criminal record/behaviour and not pose a threat to the State”.
Having convictions for minor offences will not, of itself, result in disqualification.
Ms McEntee’s officials have said there is no reliable data on the number of undocumented persons in the State but studies suggest there could be up to 17,000 undocumented persons, including up to 3,000 children.
They believe many could be in employment, although likely low-paid employment.
“Given that those who will benefit from this scheme currently live in the shadows, it is difficult to say how many will be eligible, but we are opening this scheme for six months from January to allow people to come forward and regularise their status,” Ms McEntee said.
"It will bring some much-needed certainty and peace of mind to thousands of people who are already living here and making a valuable contribution to our society and the economy, many of whom may be very vulnerable due to their current immigration circumstances.”
The scheme will include a parallel process to implement the recommendation included in the report of the expert advisory group, led by Dr Catherine Day, by allowing international protection applicants who have an outstanding application for international protection and have been in the asylum process for a minimum of two years to apply.
Fiona Hurley of Nasc, the migrant and refugee rights organisation said: “This is a life-changing scheme for the individuals and families who will be able to gain residency.
“Undocumented people often fall through the cracks and this scheme will finally give families security in the State.”
Asked how many of Ireland's estimated 17,000 undocumented people could benefit, she said it was very hard to give a precise figure, but it would be more than 2,000.
She said: “We've been getting quite a few queries from people in anticipation of this scheme, so we do believe that there's a lot of interest there. It's really hard for someone to get an idea of the numbers but we're preparing to be inundated with queries once the scheme opens."
However, while welcoming it, she pointed out potential shortcomings.
“I think some of the areas that people might be a little bit disappointed about is that the scheme looks for four years of residency for people who are undocumented,” she said.
“It can be quite difficult sometimes to prove your period of residence for that long, especially where someone might not have a bank account or a PPS number.
“So the typical types of proof of address that we would think of, like a utility bill, or a rental agreement or letter from the Private Residential Tenancies boards – that's not something that will be available to those people.
“So we certainly anticipate that gathering documentation might be difficult for people.”
Brian Killoran, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, said: “[We] welcome the long-awaited introduction of this scheme.
“We have been calling on the Government to introduce such a scheme for many years, reflecting the ongoing increase in queries to our helpline from undocumented migrants looking for immigration advice.
"The scheme will be profoundly transformative to the lives of thousands of individuals and families, including children born here in Ireland who have never known any other home.”
But he added: “While we are delighted at the inclusive nature of the scheme, there are challenges we feel should be addressed.
“These include the particularly high – and potentially prohibitive – application fees for the scheme for undocumented individuals and families.
“Many of the potential applicants of the scheme will struggle with the cost of the fees, given the shadow nature of their employment conditions.
“We are disappointed in the State’s omission of any financial hardship exemptions for the application costs.
“We welcome the scheme being open for six months and recognise the challenge in communicating the scheme to hard-to-reach migrant populations across Ireland who may be eligible.”