Borderline Immigration – As Featured on Irish Legal News
Newry Immigration firm shares some insights into advising clients from a border region location
Granite Immigration Law was set up in 2019 to support businesses and individuals to navigate complex immigration routes and cross-border issues impacting the workforce and migration in general. The last three years have seen the services of the niche practice expand. Director of Immigration Services, Sarah Henry and Paralegal Jack McClelland have been reflecting on the changing areas of work, particularly in the wake of Brexit and now the Ukraine Refugee Crisis.
Firstly, why set up a firm specialising in such a niche practice area and why Newry?
Sarah: As an immigration solicitor with experience of working in Belfast and Dublin for several years, I returned home to Newry. The opportunity arose to join a new law firm, Granite Legal Services which was a specialist niche firm providing business and employment law advice set up by Jonathan McKeown, better known as the founder of JMK Solicitors. At that time, immigration changes brought about by Brexit were a real live issue, and in fact still are. It was perfect timing to re-start my career in immigration, after a short break, when matters were evolving so rapidly and everyone felt forced to get to grips with the new reality facing both businesses and families living here as the model of free movement came to an end.
Jack: While Newry isn’t a city on the same scale as Dublin and Belfast and is probably not as diverse when it comes to inward migration, we have attracted clients from both north and south of the border as well as further afield.
Do you think you gain a unique perspective given your location right on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?
Sarah: Yes, I think so. We were party to many discussions on behalf of the business community here and the Home Office when it came to Brexit because of the fact that Newry and the wider area borders the Republic of Ireland which was a concern for businesses when it came to retaining and hiring staff through a more restrictive immigration regime in the UK. The question we get asked a lot by staff, businesses and people who want to relocate to this island is, ‘where should we go – Ireland or Northern Ireland?’ Obviously the answer depends on many factors but we have helped individuals decide on the best choice for them – albeit it isn’t always an easy one to make!
Jack: We are also in a position to support clients around the Common Travel Area and we try to feed into the conversation as much as possible when it comes to identifying practical problems for people who travel between the two jurisdictions on a daily basis, for work or for medical treatment or school.
What area of your work has grown over the past 12 months?
Sarah: We were very busy with applications for residency under the EU Settlement Scheme as provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement. Issues arising there concerned concessions afforded to ‘relevant people from Northern Ireland’ who could support an application for their non-EEA family members to join them in the UK. Since that scheme has all but ended apart from some exceptional cases, we continue to see significant growth in applications for Irish citizenship or naturalisation. Many of our clients are based on Northern Ireland so their application for citizenship is based on marriage to an Irish national. We also have clients across the UK, America and other parts of Europe who seek to gain Irish citizenship through the Foreign Birth Register based on ancestry.
Jack: The very first client to the firm was able to secure pre-settled status, settled status, Irish citizenship and most recently British Citizenship as well – all in the space of 2 and a half years so that was a great outcome!
The crisis in Ukraine continues to escalate and as we know, many Ukrainian families have fled to seek refuge in this part of the world. What has your experience been over the last couple of months in terms of assisting these refugees?
Sarah: We immediately came on board to offer pro-bono advice to Ukrainian refugees who wanted to travel to the UK and given our location, we inevitably became involved in advising clients on the support available to them in Ireland also. The fact that two very different systems were in place on either side of the border was chaotic and very stressful, first and foremost for those needing protection but also for lawyers and agencies who were charged with providing advice and support. Without going into detail, Ireland lifted all visa requirements and offered temporary protection and additional supports for all Ukrainian nationals arriving there. To come North, or indeed to travel to any part of the UK, a visa had to be applied for outside the country. The majority of individuals that we came into contact with, travelled North without a visa for a variety of reasons. Many didn’t even know they were in the UK until it was pointed out to them. By that stage the community here had already gathered around them offering housing, support and most importantly assisting them with accessing medical care and treatment. It should be noted that without a visa, strictly speaking, access to any form of government support is not possible. This created a difficult situation for people who were extremely vulnerable, suffering shock and trauma having left their home, many of whom had little to no English language skills. At the moment the Law Centre NI is able to offer support to people in this position however the situation here is very unique and a more proactive and urgent response from the Home Office was needed from the outset of the refugee crises. We are working with women and children who are extremely vulnerable and if it were not for charities and our local community, they would have been destitute and totally isolated.
Jack: It remains to be seen what lies ahead for our new arrivals from Ukraine as the UK visa schemes are temporary and issues around delay, suitable accommodation and sponsors are already evident. We are also working with Afghan refugees who applied to come to the UK months ago and are basically stranded.
Sarah: I think we are in for a wave of change as the UK government ramp up efforts to deliver its immigration plan, particularly when it comes to asylum seekers. It’s good to know that legal challenges are already underway to ensure that men, women and children coming here are able to access justice and the protection guaranteed to them under international law. There is never a dull moment!