Keith Byrne is not the typical face of immigration enforcement featured on cable news.
The 37-year-old Springfield Township man, an Irish national, expects to be deported any day now as he sits in detention. His family said his arrest is a reminder that amid the Trump administration’s impending plans to detain and deport recently arrived Central American families, less publicized enforcement is already having a broad impact on immigrants residing in the United States.
“We just didn’t think it would happen to us,” said Keren Byrne, Keith’s wife.
He arrived in 2007 through the popular “visa waiver program,” which allows visitors from certain countries to travel to the United States easily, but closes avenues to fight to stay if they violate the terms of that agreement. In 2009, he married Keren, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Northwest Philadelphia.
Byrne was arrested while heading to work Wednesday morning, while his wife was getting their 4, 6 and 13-year-old kids ready to go to a waterpark. Then, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer knocked on their door and delivered the news to Keren.
“He told me a few times because I didn’t really process it,” she said.
Like Byrne, two-thirds of unauthorized adult immigrants are long-term residents who have spent more than a decade in the United States, according to census numbers crunched by the Pew Research Center. Enforcement against this group has picked up under the Trump administration, alongside harsher treatment of more recent border-crossers and asylum petitioners. In April, the president vowed to crack down on immigrants who overstay after gaining permission to visit the U.S.
Modern Irish immigrants facing more deportations
The government of Ireland has estimated there are 50,000 unauthorized Irish immigrants in the United States, although that number could be as low as 10,000, depending on which unofficial tally is used.
“Nobody actually knows,” said Nicola Bell, communications director with the Irish Immigration Center of Philadelphia, located in Upper Darby.
In many cases, she said people overstay their visas but leave after a few years, or marry U.S. citizens and are able to obtain a green card.
As with citizens of many countries, the deportation of unauthorized immigrants from Ireland has risen in recent years, from 26 in 2016, to 47 in 2018, according to ICE’s annual removal numbers. That number still pales in comparison to the more than 140,000 immigrants from Mexico forced out of the United States last year. Ireland has a designated diplomat, House of Parliament Member John Deasy, lobbying Washington for gentler treatment for their undocumented citizens.
Byrne was born in Fermoy, in southern Ireland, and is one of 11 siblings. When he came to the United States in 2007, he stayed with a cousin and started working, joining a long history of Irish immigrants who came to the United States to work. A year later, he met Keren.
“He was going to go home, but we met the same week he was making that decision,” she said.
He took a risk on their budding relationship and stayed. For their wedding, the couple showed up unannounced with a small party at the gazebo behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art and said their vows.
They now have two children and together are raising Keren’s son from a previous relationship.
The Byrnes first petitioned to adjust Keith’s status in 2010, expecting the process to be straightforward since they were married. But due to the constraints of the visa waiver program, and two small marijuana possession charges Keith fessed up to while still living in Ireland, their petitions and rounds of appeals have all been rejected. Keren Byrne referred to her husband’s immigration status as “a black cloud” over their lives.
Even so, as a long-time resident petitioning to stay, and a father of U.S. citizens, Keith Byrne was able to build a life in the U.S., legally. He received work authorization and a Social Security number. He started a house painting business. On the front door of the home the couple bought in February is a sign that says “Fáilte,” Gaelic for “Welcome.” Out back flies a large Irish flag.
“[Immigration enforcement] knows where he’s going to be today, tomorrow, any day,” said attorney Wayne Sachs, who called the arrest “low-hanging fruit.”
Sachs worked with attorneys in Ireland to try to have the two possession citations expunged, but it did not help the case. The Byrnes have exhausted their legal options, he said.
Keith, who is being held at the Pike County Correctional Facility in northeastern Pennsylvania, could be deported quickly.
In a statement, an ICE spokesman said Bryne “failed to depart the United States under the terms of his admission… [and] is currently in ICE custody pending removal.”
Keren has reached out to local elected officials U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and members of Congress Brendan Boyle and Madeleine Dean for help stalling his removal but said she is coming around to the idea that they may not be able to help.
“I probably have a thousand thoughts in my head every couple minutes, about what I could do and couldn’t do, losing hope, gaining hope,” she said.
If Keith goes to Ireland, then she said she does too.