The plight of a group of Galway families working in the United States, who are being hampered from returning home because they could have to pay up to €100,000 to put their children through college, has been highlighted in the Dáil.
Galway West Independent TD Noel Grealish, said that their quandary was typical of the kind of barriers being placed in the way of Irish emigrants coming back and making a contribution to the rebuilding of Ireland.
Speaking during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil, he said that about 300,000 people had left this country over the past decade to find work abroad when the jobs were not here, and many others had been forced to extend stays abroad because of the economic collapse here.
“A lot of them now want to come back home. But for many, it’s an economic impossibility,” said Deputy Grealish, pointing as an example to what he called a ‘particular barrier’ regarding access to our third-level universities and colleges, which had left families “being treated as foreigners in their own land”.
“If people have been out of the country for more than two of the previous five years, and living outside of the EU, their children are treated as international students who must pay exorbitant fees to go to college.
“That could be as much as €100,000 in total fees for an undergraduate course.
“I was recently contacted by a group of Irish families living and working in California for the past three to 12 years, most of them with Medtronic, the medical device manufacturer whose plant in Galway is one of the largest employers in Ireland, with close on 3,000 workers directly employed there.
“These are mainly highly educated, highly skilled people, Irish to the core, who feel that they have a lot to contribute to this country if they were to return.
“Now, with many of them having children approaching college age, they are anxious that they should get an Irish third-level education … but the costs, allied to a reduction in their own salaries should they come back to Ireland, make this prohibitive.
“And if they go to college in the States, the likelihood is that is where they will stay for the rest of their lives, their talents lost to Ireland, along with those of their parents.”
Deputy Grealish said that, similarly, there were others in the United States who were becoming more and more fearful for their future there because of the fact that they were undocumented.
“For them, and many other Irish families in Australia, Canada and around the globe, the question of returning home is a heart-breaking quandary, because they know, if they do, their children probably can’t advance to a college education, which is considered a basic necessity for accessing so many careers today.
Deputy Grealish also urged the government to give Irish people abroad the option to renew their driving licences online.
“For many, it is the only thing saving them from deportation from the US. In all of the ‘sanctuary cities’ the production of that licence saves people from arrest.
“An Irish passport can be renewed online and at the post office, but a driver's licence cannot be renewed unless the applicant presents himself or herself in person at a National Driver Licence Service centre in this country. This is an impossibility for those living in the US and other parts of the world,” he said.
In reply, Minister for Social Protection, Leo Varadkar, said that he would discuss the matter of driving licence renewal with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
“On the face of it, given that passports can be renewed online, it seems to make sense that people would be able to renew a driver's licence online provided we have on record the applicant’s SAFE II photograph,” he added.