Sanchi Kiran Tayal watched as the immigration offices at Burgh Quay scrambled to deal with applications during the pandemic.
The state wasn’t allocating enough resources to immigration services, she says – and she decided to do something about that.
She set up one WhatsApp group, and a Facebook group, then another WhatsApp group, then another and another, which all one after the other filled up and reached capacity – until she had seven on the go, all dedicated to queries that people had struggled to get answered by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS).
“I’m in touch with thousands of people every day,” says Tayal, who learned to navigate the system herself through her own Irish journey from student to Stamp 4 holder.
Her groups are all called “Immigration Ireland (updates)”.
When someone’s requesting professional help, Tayal – who works in a Dublin-based legal firm – charges them, she says. But she offers advice and answers to social queries for free.
A gap in clear communication from the Department of Justice and immigration service delivery bodies has led immigrants to self-organise, says Brian Killoran, CEO of the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
Both Killoran and Tayal say that the services don’t have enough staff to deal well with queries and cases.
Tayal says, given the opportunity, she would work part-time at the Burgh Quay office.
She says she is baffled as to why the state is not using more professional immigrants who have dealt with the zigs and zags of the system to help out with the tall volume of applications and queries.
“I don’t understand what is stopping [them] from hiring more people,” she says.
Tayal has had queries from people who say they’ve gotten an immigration stamp different from the one they applied for, she says. (Another problem she attributes to the shortage of staff.)
Others have asked why the INIS doesn’t have a helpline to answer queries. Some told her of unpleasant experiences when finally getting someone on the phone.
Renuka Marri reached out to Tayal after troubles with her permission to stay. “A friend of mine suggested I’d consult her,” she says.
Marri had gone to India from Dublin in February while on a graduate scheme visa. She had to stay longer than expected, because of the pandemic, so her immigration permission expired.
Without a valid Irish Residence Permit (IRP), she needed a re-entry visa to return to Dublin, Marri says.
She wrote to INIS asking for a letter to present to the Irish Embassy in India, but they never replied, she says. “And the phone number they have, even if you just need a yes or no answer, they tell you to email it to them.”
Tayal, she says, helped her write another email, and urged her to keep chasing them for the letter.
“After Sanchi gave me those guidelines, they got back to me and said I was entitled to it. It was just an email, but I showed it and got my re-entry visa,” she says.
Marri, who finally returned to Dublin in October, says she has missed more than seven months of the second year of her graduate visa because of the back and forth.
INIS, she says, failed to take into account the months she was forced to stay in India. “My friend who was in the exact same situation got her visa renewed until November.”
A spokesperson for the Departement of Justice says if people were forced to remain outside of Ireland “due to circumstances beyond their control[…]arrangements can be made to extend their permission to account for the time they missed.”
Staffing and Services
The Immigrant Council of Ireland, which also has a private support group on Facebook, has had more than 5,000 calls and emails so far in December, more than all inquiries last year, says Killoran, the CEO.
“The Immigrant Council has long campaigned for the Department of Justice to allocate more resources to its immigration services teams,” he says.
Improving customer service and boosting transparency is another demand, Killoran says.
Running the system using the first-hand knowledge and expertise of immigrants used to dealing with its shortcomings is an option that the Department of Justice must explore, according to Killoran.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that while there was no reduction in the number of staff working for the INIS during the pandemic, the requirements for social distancing impacted the amount of staff able to work in the office at once.
“In Budget 2021, funding of €42 million was allocated to modernise the Justice Sector through increased digital and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) investment. The increased digitisation of immigration services is included in this modernisation process,” said the spokesperson.
Tayal encourages all immigrants who are facing problems to speak up. “I had seen that there had been improvements when people spoke up and brought issues to notice,” she says.
[This article was updated at 15.23 on 17 December to include comments from the Department of Justice.]