Juan Carlos Sanchez had the money when he arrived, but as he waits and waits, it is draining away.
A student from Mexico studying English at a city-centre language school, he knew he’d have to register with the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) when he got here.
He knew he’d have to prove he had the means to support himself, by showing he had access to at least €3,000. And he had the money when he arrived.
But the earliest appointment he could get to register with INIS at Burgh Quay was on 17 January, due to savage delays in the new online appointment system.
Sanchez is not allowed to work until he registers, so he can only wait, and watch his money evaporate.
“That is crazy because I’ve already paid for my six-month course, so now I don’t know if I should cancel my course and go back to Mexico early,” he said.
New System, New Problems
Until recently, those who needed to register at Burgh Quay had to show up before dawn, and wait for hours in a line that could stretch around the block, so that they could get a ticket to wait for hours more inside before being seen.
Those who didn’t show up early enough to wait outside wouldn’t get a ticket when the office opened with a low enough number to get served that day, and would have to come back another day and try again.
This autumn, though, the government brought in a new system. No more waiting for hours in the dark and cold – just go to an INIS website, book an appointment, show up at your chosen time, and take care of your business.
It sounds better, but this new system brings its own challenges.
Appointments can only be booked for dates within the next 10 weeks, and several of those trying to book report receiving a message saying there are simply no appointments available within that time period.
Cancellations make more appointments available from time to time, so the desperate must try again and again, hoping to snag one as it comes up, like music fans trying to get concert tickets before they’re sold out.
“I spent five days trying online to apply for the appointment. I tried at all different times, like 5am, 3am, 10am,” said Sanchez. He says he kept getting a message that simply said “there are no appointments available”.
A friend who arrived in Ireland with him had the same experience, he says. They eventually both managed to get appointments for January, almost ten weeks after they arrived.
But now there’s the problem of what the wait will do to Sanchez’s bank account.
Better or Worse?
The Department of Justice does not accept that there are major issues with the new system.
Spokesperson Ian Kelleher says it is an improvement on the old system, and that 25,000 appointments have been made since it was introduced.
But Maria Alvaro, who, like Sanchez, is from Mexico, has experienced both systems. She says the old system of queueing up was better.
She has been trying to get an appointment for the past week. She says she can’t accept one in January, because by then her current registration will have run out.
“It’s better to stand outside in the cold for the night,” she says. “At least you knew you could do it.”
It’s unclear what will happen to those who are unable to renew their registrations in time, because of the delays in the system.
We asked Kelleher, but he didn’t answer the question directly. He said if people need an emergency appointment, they should email [email protected], but he didn’t explain what constitutes an emergency.
Kelleher says this is the busiest time of year for the 502 staff who work in INIS, and that Burgh Quay is open extra hours on Saturdays and late nights Monday to Thursday, in an effort to reduce the backlog.
Sanchez also says he’d rather queue up in the cold than not to be able to look for work over the busy Christmas period, while his language school is closed.
“I can’t work, I can’t study, I can’t travel, it’s a disaster,” he says.
Getting the Word Out
Many who must register or renew their registration at Burgh Quay may not have heard about the new system.
They may not be aware that they can no longer just go down early in the morning and take care of their issues right there and then, that now they need to book an appointment, which will be many weeks away, if they can get one.
The line on the quays is gone, but now there’s a much longer one, an invisible, electronic one.
The Department of Justice, of which the INIS is a part, has tried to spread the word, Kelleher said. It has contacted the big language schools, NGOs, and Citizens Information.
But he says people already living here or entering the country for the first time have a responsibility to inform themselves of changes to the system.
“In line with all immigration systems worldwide, it is the responsibility of the individual to ensure that they are fully informed of the requirements in relation to their immigration permission,” Kelleher said.
Spending, not Earning
Sanchez says he was told by the agent in Mexico who sold him his course that he would be able to get his “visa” shortly after he arrived in Ireland.
(The permission to remain in Ireland, which is required by people from many countries including Mexico is not called a visa, although it operates in a similar way.)
“They didn’t tell me that I would have to wait two months to get my visa. If I had known that, I would have worked in Mexico until January. I left a job to come here,” he says.
Students living here with a Stamp 2 immigration permission are allowed to work part-time, but they cannot start until they are registered with INIS and get the stamp.
“The permission to work is a concession, and students are required to be in a position to support themselves outside of the work concession while resident in the State,” says Kelleher
It seems, though, that some leniency may be shown in regards to the proof of funds required.
“In relation to the €3,000 funds … this would be dealt with on a case by case, but … the registration office would take a pragmatic view of an individual’s circumstances including in relation to securing an appointment,” he said.
If you are Sanchez, that offers little certainty.
“We are worried, my friend and me,” he said, sitting on a couch in the city-centre language school he attends. “Everyone is saying different things, and I don’t know what to believe.”