By Ray O’Hanlon
A Donegal man spent six weeks in confinement with a Wisconsin prison’s general population before being hauled before a Chicago immigration judge in handcuffs and shackles.
The judge granted Colm Gallagher bail.
This was not a particular surprise as Gallagher, who is 36 and from Ballybofey, was not charged with any offense other than being an undocumented immigrant.
But in yet another searing example of how immigrants, Irish and otherwise, are increasingly vulnerable in the post-Sept. 11 legal climate, Gallagher’s story reads like litany of an immigrant’s worst nightmares.
And the bad dream is far from over.
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Gallagher, who had carved a niche for himself in the pub management business in the Windy City, is now facing a blunt end to his American dream: deportation or so-called voluntary departure, a process that is usually anything but.
And all because, Gallagher said this week, he simply attempted to get paid for work he had done as a consultant in the setting up of an Irish theme pub on Chicago’s North Side.
Gallagher’s ordeal began early on the morning of Wednesday, May 1. It was a day he had marked on his calendar. A nephew was flying in from Ireland to work in Chicago for the summer and Gallagher was to meet him at O’Hare Airport.
The meeting never took place. At about 6 a.m. Gallagher was roused by a knock on his apartment door. He opened it to three agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Gallagher’s American dream, which had started with his arrival in New York in July 1995, was about to be stopped in its tracks.
Gallagher had liked New York well enough, but he had family in Chicago. Having worked in the bar business back in Ireland, he decided three years ago to try his luck on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Gallagher quickly fell in love with Chicago. He thought it a “great town.”
It was even better with steady employment and decent money.
Gallagher got a job in the rapidly expanding Irish theme pub business. His first big project, he said, was in setting up a theme bar, Johnny O’Hagan’s, on the city’s fashionable North Clark Street.
According to Gallagher, he worked as a consultant for four months before the bar was opened. He then became its general manager and, from Gallagher’s perspective, things progressed well, at least for a time.
After a year, however, he was unhappy with the way the bar’s business was developing. He cited differences with the bar’s owner, Brendan Carroll.
Gallagher said he decided to move on in the first half of 2001.
During his year as manager of Johnny O’Hagan’s he had no problems over pay. He was paid without fail every two weeks.
He expected no problems now in wrapping up his relationship with his former employer.
“I asked to be paid for the months I had spent starting up the business,” he said. “I was asked to send an invoice for my services. But they kept stalling on paying the money they owed me, so I got worried that I would not be paid.”
In June of 2001, Gallagher filed a grievance complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor. He estimated that he was owed $14,000 by his former employer, Brendan Carroll.
“This is where everything started to change,” Gallagher said.
As was to be expected, Gallagher’s complaint took a while to proceed through the system. Meanwhile, he began working on plans for a new bar on Chicago’s South Side.
Gallagher has no doubt in his mind that his filing directly led to the early-morning knock on his door in May of this year.
According to Gallagher, a judge at his only court hearing to date read aloud from papers dealing with his case.
“He said that my problem was as a result of harassing a bar the police frequented,” Gallagher said.
Brendan Carroll, the owner of Johnny O’Hagan’s, was in Ireland this week and not immediately available for comment. However, the bar’s chef/manager, Dave Keller, expressed concern over any suggestion that the bar, or its owner, was at any fault in the case.
Keller said he could not comment on any financial matters between Johnny O’Hagan’s and Colm Gallagher. He confirmed, however, that Gallagher had worked as the bar’s general manager but stated that the end of Gallagher’s employment had nothing to do with money or the ownership’s business direction.
“It was a performance issue and we needed to terminate his employment,” Keller said.
Keller said he and Gallagher had worked together at Johnny O’Hagan’s from the beginning.
“I can’t understand why he thinks we are the source of all his problems,” Keller said.
He said that Gallagher appeared bent on “vengeance” toward Johnny O’Hagan’s. “He’s blaming everything on us,” he said.
Whatever the exact reason behind Gallagher’s ending up behind bars, the prison variety, it would appear that at some point a complaint was made about alleged “harassment.”
Exactly who made the complaint and to what legal authority is as yet unclear.
What is clear is that the INS at one point became aware of Gallagher’s undocumented status.
Sinn Fein query
According to Gallagher, one of the first questions he was asked by the INS agents was whether he had any involvement with the Irish republican political party Sinn FTin.
Gallagher, who told the Echo that he has never had an interest in politics, said he replied, “absolutely not.”
The INS agents said they had reason to believe that Gallagher had overstayed his visa, which was the case.
Gallagher said he was asked to sign a number of forms. He said that it was indicated to him that failure to do so would mean that he would forfeit even the more limited legal rights enjoyed by the undocumented.
“They frightened the life out of him,” Gallagher’s attorney, John Colbert, said.
What concerns Colbert more than how the INS heard about Gallagher is what happened after they picked him up.
“What’s even more egregious was the lack of due process, the way they treated a simple overstay,” Colbert said.
That treatment entailed a rapid journey from Gallagher’s apartment to the Broadview INS detention Center in Chicago and from there to Elkhorn, Wis., and a prison holding both undocumented immigrants and other individuals charged with, in some cases, serious felonies.
Gallagher was to spend six weeks in the facility. For 17 out of 24 hours he would be mixed with the general population. It was his belief that some inmates were being held for murder.
“Once you mention terrorist now they just throw away the key,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher’s comment was an eerie echo of the experience of a Belfast couple recently imprisoned for a week in Las Vegas after their employer leveled a charge of terrorist involvement against them. No charges were ever brought in that case.
No charges related to terrorism were brought against Gallagher either, but that didn’t result in release from prison after just a week.
“I couldn’t get him in front of a judge. There were no emergency procedures for this in an immigration or INS context,” Colbert said. “And he had been so intimidated that he had signed a bunch of papers waiving his rights.”
It was during his time in Elkhorn that Gallagher became convinced that his detention might have been linked to an accusation that he was somehow involved in terrorism.
“A guard asked me if I was in the IRA,” Gallagher said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was wondering what was being said about me. My lawyer then asked me if I was in the IRA and I had to convince him that I was not.”
Attorney Colbert, a native of Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, said that when he made an inquiry to the INS he was told that his client was being held under “special circumstances.”
“There were rumors floating around that Colm was an IRA member,” Colbert said. “But it was never openly spoken of, although what other special circumstance could it be other than he might be linked to the IRA?”
Special or not, there was no apparent rush in bringing Gallagher before a judge.
“There was no notice of a court hearing or a deportation order. So I filed an emergency motion. Fortunately, the [INS] district director agreed with it.”
The motion countered Gallagher’s waiving of his rights. He was now entitled to a court appearance.
According to Gallagher, he was driven from Wisconsin to court in Chicago while shackled and handcuffed to an INS officer and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit.
“It was an horrific experience,” Colbert said.
“It was all a nightmare,” Gallagher said.
The presiding judge scanned the papers and agreed that the law had been applied in excess. Gallagher was released on $1,500 bail.
He has another court appearance on Sept. 19.
What looks likely now is voluntary departure from the United States and a 10-year ban on returning, although Gallagher’s U.S. family ties — his grandfather served in the U.S. Navy and was a citizen — mean that his mother back in Ireland could be entitled to U.S. citizenship.
“When everything is going well, you really have a great life here,” Gallagher said. “Right now my job’s gone, my apartment’s gone. I’m just trying to pick up the pieces.”