July 29, 2019
After everything that he and his family have been through this month, Keith Byrne doesn’t feel comfortable venturing too far from his family’s home on a cozy, tree-lined street in Springfield Township, Montgomery County.
The 37-year-old Irish national – a man who’s spent more than a decade toiling to achieve his version of the American dream – was freed from Pike County Correctional Facility near Scranton just four days before he shared that sentiment on Monday.
That sinking feeling took hold after he was snatched up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, who followed him off his block and arrested him on July 10.
At 8:10 a.m. that day, he was driving to pick up people who work for the painting company that he built from the ground up. He noticed a car he didn't recognize following him off – an unusual observation on their quiet street – but didn’t think much of it until he saw the lights in his rear-view mirror.
Little did he realize the arrest was the start of a 15-day ordeal that included the possibility of not being able to see his wife and three children before getting deported to his native Ireland.
But that fate was temporarily staved off late last week by a U.S. District Court judge who ordered a judicial review of his adjustment of residency status, something that he and his wife Keren have worked for years to secure.
Still, with each passing moment, time is ticking off the clock for his 30-day reprieve.
“Sure, there’s some confidence that comes with being released. I'm just going to try and keep that confidence up for my family while I let the lawyers do what they do,” he said, sitting at the dining room table in the home he and his wife Keren, an emergency room nurse at Jefferson Methodist Hospital, bought last fall.
“But because of the way ICE pounded on me the way they did, and the law being out of my hands, I guess I’m scared," he continued. "I’m scared to even walk out of the house now. I haven't left since I got back.”
The Byrne family's plight was, and remains, the focus of front-page and nightly-news attention in Ireland.
It’s a story that has prompted tens of thousands of people to sign a local petition in support of Keith's citizenship and raise money for a family that doesn’t know whether it will soon be torn apart or have to relocate overseas.
Despite a decade of working within the system to become an American, Keith Byrne could soon be forced to leave behind the family, job and country he loves, all because of how a broken immigration system responded to a minor marijuana infraction from before he ever set foot in the United States.
On Monday, he spoke with PhillyVoice about the path that led him to this moment, what the future may hold, and the reactions – both positive and negative – to his story.
“I asked, ‘What are you doing? Why are you after me?’ They told me that I’ve taken it as far as I can.” – Keith Byrne
“My focus has always been on building a family, a business and a home, and we’re there after 10 years of sacrifice,” he said, with an Irish accent still guiding his words. “Now that we’ve reached the summit, don’t kick us down to the bottom. It’s OK for someone to enjoy fruits of their labor.
"Let’s talk about the good. Put the stuff that you think is wrong (with my story) aside. Stop focusing on the negatives. Let’s talk about the positives.”
In 2007, Keith was a 25-year-old from Fermoy, County Cork, Ireland who wanted to visit cousins living in America.
He did so thanks to a visa waiver program that enables visitors to stay for 90 days if they agree to sign away rights to contest deportation should they overstay their welcome.
A month later, he met Keren at a gathering of mutual friends. They parted ways, but a year later, their love blossomed.
Keith didn’t return to Ireland after his visa expired. He lived in Roxborough, working for a painting company, a job to which he had to ride a bicycle since he wasn't eligible for a driver's license. Keren lived in Germantown with a young son from a previous relationship.
“We fell in love very quickly. I said, 'Let’s see where this goes.' It went all the way up," he said. "Keren had a two-year-old when I met her. I worked to support them through (Keren) going to nursing school, caring for a child who I loved just like I loved her. You have to be all-in. We were all-in. Our hard work made good luck.”
On October 10, 2009, they got married in a tiny ceremony at a gazebo behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Shortly thereafter, they applied to get Keith’s residency status adjusted. That process continues to this day with numerous appeals. He got a driver’s license and a job, and paid taxes while remaining in the country legally.
The arrest earlier this month came before they filed the paperwork to appeal the most recent denial, a rejection based on a pair of marijuana violations in Ireland for which he paid a $100 fine and received no further punishment.
All the while, as their family grew with the birth of a daughter who will soon turn seven and a son who's now four, he worked to build a successful painting business of his own.
“For me, to forget about all of the law and legal aspects going on, I grabbed onto my work. This is what I’m going to do, and the lawyers can do their thing,” he said. “I took my work and didn’t let go of it, leaving early in the morning and getting home just in time to say goodnight to our kids. Everything paid off because both Keren and I worked extremely hard.”
On the morning of July 10, Keith walked out to his work van just like it was any other day. It would soon become anything but that.
“As soon as I drove off, I saw a car pull out behind me. It was very unusual, a ‘what the hell is that’ moment, but I’m not hiding, so I’m not paranoid,” said Keith, who would travel three blocks along nearby Paper Mill Road before he noticed the lights behind him. “Not once did ICE come into my head, even with all the raids going on.”
At first, he was confused. He hadn’t been speeding. What did they want with him? Then, he saw the ICE badge.
“I asked, ‘What are you doing? Why are you after me?’” he recalled. “They told me that I’ve taken it as far as I can.”
Their tone was somewhat polite with a touch of sarcasm, but he knew this could become a major problem quickly.
Keith was taken to an Arch Street facility with “cuffs on my hands and feet.” Over the course of the next several hours, eight more detainees would be brought into the holding area. They were from Romania, Guatemala and Mexico, and would be taken to Pike County together by sunset.
“At that point, I’m scared because I don’t know where I’m going. My mind’s racing. I’m heartbroken because I know this could be quick, that I could be sent back to Ireland within a couple days,” he said “When would I see my babies, my wife? My business is f*****. I was scared.”
“I was honest and upfront from the get-go,” he said of taking those legal steps. “Why pounce on me like I was a criminal who smuggled drugs across the border? That’s how I was treated, even though I’d spent years working my ass off, paying taxes. This is not what the Statue of Liberty is all about.”
What would come next was “15 days of pure hell” in a prison, worrying about his children, wife and business as a result of being one of 36 people caught up in similar circumstances with the “raids” across the country that week.
Meanwhile, Keren launched a media blitz and reached out to countless elected officials, moves that the couple – and Thomas Griffin, Keith’s third attorney through the process – think helped the push toward temporary freedom.
“I really don’t want to be doing this,” he admitted about the interview which will draw more attention in his direction. “I don’t know if it will help or hurt.”
When he was released from custody last Thursday night, it came as a surprise to Keith, who was “absolutely convinced I was not going to get out.”
“I tried to be positive, but every night going to bed, I thought about not being together with my family anymore,” he said. “It’s the worst thing to have too much time on your hands and nothing to think about but that. When I got out, my daughter was laughing and crying. It was special.”
Though he’s free – whether temporarily or permanently – Keith has confidence in his attorneys. He hasn’t spoken to them since getting released, but remains certain that they’ll do the best they can on his family’s behalf.
He’s seen some of the negative reactions from those who think he should be deported because of minor infractions in Ireland more than a decade ago and overstaying his visa waiver.
What those critics – including one who posted a YouTube video just reading negative comments about his situation – fail to acknowledge, he said, is that he’s worked within the system to reconcile the issues.
“Yes, I overstayed my visa waiver from one year, but as soon as we got married, we went to a lawyer and tried to change my status. That’s still what’s going on today,” he said. “To say I’ve broken the law for 12 years is just not true. People who say that just don’t know my story.
“This process started in 2010. We went right at it, trying to do things the right way. Nothing that I have done will be good enough for those people. I worked my ass off, built my business from dirt, and very successfully, might I add. What’s to be said for that?
“I’m not home sitting around asking for anything. I’m not a burden for this country. But it’s going to be a huge burden for a lot of people if I have to go back to Ireland. My family here. My family there. My stepson’s family. So many people will be hurt.”
For all the uncertainty, though, Keith deeply appreciates the "overwhelming" support for his family. He won’t let the situation impact his view of their country.
“America has given me everything I have. It’s a fine country. I love it. I do want to call it home,” he said. “I have so much respect for this country. I work every day. For me, it’s definitely the land of opportunities. I won’t let this change my mind about America.”
Still, he’s discouraged by the situation, and feels as if “my work should speak for itself,” insofar as building a personal American Dream for his family. That he hasn’t had any legal trouble beyond this situation should be an entry in the plus column for his case, he said.
“I don’t want to think about what will happen if they decide to deport me. I don’t have a ‘plan B’ yet,” he said. “People can say what they want, but I want them to look at this side of it, too. What makes them think that I’m hiding, fleeing and not respecting the law? That’s totally unjust.
“Anyone with a heart or brain, I don’t know how they could look at this and say ‘get him out of the country.’ I’ve done things the right way. What about the good people? The people who come into country and do what I’ve done, what we've done as a family? What’s to be said for that? I’ve never expected attention or praise. I met the person I love, built a successful business and we’re raising a family. I think I’ve made the American dream.”
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