The holiday season was a tense one, to say the least, for the McAllister family. Days before Thanksgiving, federal agents raided their New Jersey home in the dead of night. Before Christmas, it became a distinct possibility that all six Belfast natives would be deported.
Now, the McAllisters are awaiting a crucial decision from an appeals court in Philadelphia. When that decision comes down in the coming weeks, the family will know their ultimate fate — whether they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. or deported back to Belfast.
This is a case that has out-raged many Irish-American leaders, already angry at how the Bush administration has treated other Irish nationalists in the U.S.
As Malachy McAllister put it: “We have a lot of work to do until this government recognizes that my family, and other Irish nationals in similar situations, present no danger to the safety and security of the United States. We must keep moving toward that goal.”
Malachy and Bernadette McAllister fled Belfast with their four children in the late 1980s. Malachy was an active Republican who has spent time in prison, but who had also worked to expose wrongdoing by British authorities in the North.
Then one night, over two dozen bullets were fired at the McAllisters’ Belfast home. The family decided they could no longer stay in their native land.
They left for Canada, then arrived as illegal immigrants in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. Ever since, they have been fighting for political asylum, based on the persecution — even death threats — the family might face if deported back to Belfast.
Many members of Congress as well as influential Irish-Americans have sided with Malachy and his family, who have since become respected members of their Wallington, New Jersey community.
In late November, however, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals denied the family’s asylum status. All of the McAllisters faced deportation within 30 days of the decision. Authorities sought to detain Malachy immediately. Because of prior convictions in Northern Ireland, Malachy was considered a priority case by federal authorities.
In the early morning of November 19, 2003, agents under the supervision of the Department of Homeland Security burst into the McAllisters’ home. They demanded to see Malachy, but he was out of town.
“They missed me by fifteen minutes,” McAllister said. “If I was home I’d be back in Belfast now.”
McAllister, instead, was in Washington, D.C. with supporters such as national Ancient Order of the Hibernians officers and New Jersey Congressman Donald Payne. In the days that followed, he was more or less out of the public eye. Federal agents, according to Bernadette McAllister, were parked in front of the McAllister home all that time.
In absentia, Malachy McAllister was ordered to appear at a federal immigration office in Newark on December 1. It was unclear even to his lawyer or wife if McAllister would in fact show up.
In the end, it was smart that he did.
McAllister’s appearance set in motion a chain of events and phone calls which would ultimately win him a much-needed reprieve. New Jersey Congressman Steve Rothman placed a phone call to top immigration official Asa Hutchinson. Hutchinson, a former Congressman, took Rothman’s word that neither Malachy nor his son (also wanted for immediate detention because of run-ins with the law in the U.S.) were a direct threat to U.S. national security. Thus, Malachy and his son would not be detained in the U.S., and could stay with their family in New Jersey, pending the upcoming appeals court decision.
“The Department of Homeland Security finally permitted common sense and decency to prevail and allowed Malachy McAllister to return to his family,” the McAllisters’ lawyer Eamonn Dornan said.
McAllister said he was grateful for the support he received.
“Without the support of Irish America, our representatives and senators, and without the media shining a light on this case, I have no doubt but that I would have been arrested, shackled and shipped out to face my persecutors [in Belfast],” said McAllister,
Of course, the entire McAllister family was not yet out of the woods. Bernadette and the three younger McAllisters still faced a 30-day deportation order. But as Irish America went to press, sources said they were confident a deal could be struck allowing the entire family to remain in the U.S., until the appeals court issues its asylum opinion in the coming weeks.
As one person close to the McAllisters put it: “It’s hard for me to believe that [federal authorities], after they let Malachy — who served three and a half years in prison — stay in the U.S., and not grant a stay to Bernadette and the three [younger McAllister] kids who have done nothing wrong.”
Even if all the McAllisters are allowed to temporarily stay in the U.S., the appeals court decision looms. Expected early in 2004, the decision could send the McAllisters back to Belfast. Malachy and others close to him have no doubt the family would face death threats from some in Loyalist circles. As a result, McAllisters supporters are already looking into what options the McAllisters have if the courts come down against them.
The McAllisters’ is just the latest controversial case involving a former Northern Ireland prisoner seeking asylum in the U.S.
Over the summer, Belfast native John Eddie McNicholl was deported from his Philadelphia-area home following an early-morning raid. ♦