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Immigrant advocates bemoan visa crackdown

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Susan Falvella-Garrity

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Individuals with a criminal record from the Troubles are often taking their chances by traveling to the United States without proper travel documents, according to Michael Richey, a community worker and a member of a former prisoner support group in Belfast.

Since Sept. 11, more applications for visa waivers, required by anyone from Northern Ireland with a criminal conviction, have been denied, Richey said.

“Things have really tightened up,” he continued, “and people have taken to not even bothering to apply.”

Richey said many former prisoners do not view their convictions as “criminal” offenses and think of their past incarcerations or arrests as giving them “prisoner of war” status.

“Some people do get through, although it’s haphazard and we advise them that they are taking their chances,” he said.

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Michael Maggio, said by some to be Washington D.C.’s best immigration lawyer, noted that the Irish are not alone.” Maggio advised Juan Miguel Gonzalez on regaining custody of his son Elian and how to return him to Cuba.

“The State Department is revoking previously easily obtainable entries based on political issues and other grounds for people from all over the globe,” Maggio said recently.

He called the move unprecedented and said he has found many who have never even been involved with suspect organizations being declared terrorists.

“I don’t think there’s a person out there who doesn’t want to see terrorism stop, but the sense of those of us in immigration is that what is being done is more for public consumption — to make something look like something’s being done — and it’s not a good step against terrorism,” he said.

Richey described a recent vacation nightmare of one Belfast family.

“A man with his children and his new partner’s children were going to Disney World in Orlando,” he said. “When the newly formed family touched down, the father was taken away in handcuffs and put on the next flight back to Belfast.”

The mother and children had to stay on in Florida without the father because of the cost to rebook the flight, Richey said.

The growing number of those traveling with false documents can translate to merely a happy family holiday, or it can also provide a convenient route for more problematic journeys.

“One result of all of this is that it’s become common enough to get the documents,” Richey said. He added that it was even possible that the three Irish nationalists currently held in Bogota, Colombia, on charges of assisting the FARC rebels with terrorist training techniques went through the United States on their way to South America.

The U.S. State Department did not provide comment on whether more visas had been denied recently.

“The so called golden door has been more open and at time times closed off to entry into our country,” Maggio said. “This is an old story, and it’s looking pretty grim for right now.”

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