28 Waiting in Line To Be Legal

A few weeks ago Ron and I spent an entire day—from 7:45 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.—at the Irish Immigration and Naturalization Service office on Burgh Quay here in Dublin. We were there to register for our extended residence, something we should have done months earlier. Because of some confusion in the instructions Ron received from Trinity, we hadn’t realized that we needed to take this step until our son Evan flew in to Dublin to visit us in November. Evan told the gardaí (the “guardians” or police, from An Garda Síochána, guardian of the peace) at passport control that he was coming to stay with his parents who were here for a year. They looked us up and found that we weren’t properly registered. No one likes to get a call from a stern-voiced policeman at 8 a.m. in the morning saying “I’m with your son here at the airport.” It turned out that our mistake was not a big deal and easily resolved, but for a week or so until we could devote a day to the process of getting registered, we had a small taste of the tension and fear faced not only by undocumented immigrants but also by anyone who comes under the authority of the always byzantine bureaucracy of immigration departments here, in the US, and throughout the world.

With generations of emigration to its history, Ireland is used to people leaving the country in search of a better life, but only in the last thirty years or so has immigration begun to change the face–literally and figuratively–of this formerly homogeneous country. More welcoming than some destinations but by no means perfectly adjusted to the reality of new faces, new languages, new customs, new religions, new foods, and new perspectives, Ireland is trying to figure out how a people that have found new homes and lives all over the world should react to others seeking the same things on this island.

It was cold and pitch dark as we walked from our apartment to the INIS office at 7:15 a.m., though the streets were filled with people on their way to and from work. As we took our places in the dishearteningly long line winding around the block outside the building, we saw quite a few people who had obviously been there all night, as evidenced by their blankets and sleeping bags, coffee cups and food wrappers. These early arrivals were probably would-be long-term or permanent immigrants—or undocumented immigrants—who vie each day for a very limited number of appointments. While everyone with our status eventually got in and presumably completed their business that day, many seeking immigrant visas were turned away once the available slots were filled. You could have given up a day of work, waited all night in the cold, and still not even been assigned an appointment time.

Once we got inside, we queued again for a number, and after an hour or so of that, we first stood and then, when some chairs became available, sat down to wait for our number to be called. The room was crowded, but it was well-lit and warm. I would say there were four of five hundred people waiting with us, and for a crowd that large, people were remarkably polite to each other. The chairs were hard and too close together, and there weren’t enough of them. We thought the dark blue lights in the bathrooms were some kind of disinfectant, but it turns out these are common in heavily used public bathrooms in this part of the world because they prevent drug-users from finding their veins. The “No Photography Allowed” signs everywhere reminded us of the sensitive nature of this process for many people in the room.

At 11:30 with our number still far in the future and as the more savvy people around us started pulling out their lunches, Ron ran out and got us sandwiches. Time seemed to move very, very slowly as we kept track of how many numbers were called up each hour—about fifteen per hour in the morning. With a number in the 130s, we feared we wouldn’t be called before closing time. I had brought a book with me, but I found it impossible to concentrate with the buzz of talking in the room, the nagging fear that we were somehow “in trouble,” and all the life stories going on around us as we waited, and waited, and waited. At around noon, a few more officers came to the booths in front of the waiting area and the pace of appointments started to pick up dramatically. At 2:30, we finally got the call. After relatively short conversations with the officers who dealt with our case, we waited another two hours to get fingerprinted, and another hour for our cards to be printed, but by that time we were reassured that everything was going to work out for us, so the waiting was easier. I want to note that at least from our limited perspective, the INIS staff we encountered and those who addressed the waiting mass publically were courteous, helpful, and efficient. If there had been twice the staff, however, the day would have gone much better for everyone. Looking at the sea of faces around me as I left the building, proof of legal status in hand, I understood that I was one of the lucky ones.

Our day at the INIS was a stark reminder of the privilege of being white, English speaking, employed, and compared to most of the people waiting that day with us, well-to-do. Other than a long, boring wait in a crowded room, we had no problems completing our business. The regulations, stipulations, and forms were more or less comprehensible to us. Besides a handful of study abroad students, there were few white people in the room, and in the waiting area, little English was spoken. Many were there with entire families—elderly people, schoolage kids, and toddlers. We saw numerous examples of children serving as interpreters for their parents and grandparents. Almost everyone was there for the whole day, with many staying, no doubt, until the office closed at 9 p.m. and perhaps coming back for several return visits. Ron and I are fortunate enough to set our own schedules for work, yet I would imagine that most people in the room, if employed, had to negotiate the time off and probably took the day—and maybe more days—without pay. Though we hadn’t known in advance about the €300 ($374) per person fee, we had a credit card to make up for our ignorance and won’t have to make sacrifices to cover the expense.

An article in December 17’s Irish Times highlighted another problem faced by immigrant women in Ireland. With abortion only recently and contentiously available in extreme cases here, women seeking to terminate a pregnancy must travel to Britain or the Netherlands, an expensive and complicated process that is even more difficult if not impossible for immigrants, who face an additional layer of arrangements and expenses to be allowed to leave and re-enter. This is only one of many special challenges faced by immigrants in Ireland.

At first I resented the lost day spent waiting in the INIS office, but I know now it was one of the most important days of my stay in Ireland. The movement of peoples from region to region, country to country, and for all kinds of reasons is not a new phenomenon—it is the way of the world, and it is time we faced that reality, especially in a country like the United States that was founded by and built by immigrant populations—forced and free—over the centuries. In Ireland, the US, and everywhere else, individuals, communities, and governments have a long way to go to make immigration a decent, humane, and just process, and for millions of individual reasons, it is surely our most pressing obligation.




  1. Interesting day/subject. First thought: Evan and his big mouth! Glad it all worked out.

  2. Joe Duffy

    Christine and Ron, we admire your patience.
    I am afraid that Ireland’s treatment of immigrants is not up to scratch. Its actually embarrassing, especially to those of us who spent many years as Irish Emigrants in both your country and in others.
    Thanks for the kind comments.
    Joe and Geraldine

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