MEANWHILE, IN THE Bronx, in a warm, modestly-furnished, rented apartment, Mícheál and Cheryl McMahon are into their 15th year as Irish illegals. The couple came over in the last pre-Celtic Tiger wave, certain only that their future did not lie in the Donegal of 1993. He was a carpenter who left school at 16 to learn his trade: "There was no Celtic Tiger. There was no work. I was on the dole. I remember I was in my apartment in Bundoran one winter night at around 11 o'clock and looking out the window and it must be that a bale of hay fell off a truck but it was like something you'd see in a Western, hay blowing down an empty street and it was like a sign from God . . ."
He was 20. Young, unmarried and mobile, the couple got three-month US visas: "We didn't know whether we were going to like it. We might have been back." The nature of the farewells suggested otherwise. "There was a big party, a kind of American wake". His father, Mick, was too upset to get out of bed and say goodbye when they left for the airport.
After a few months living with a family friend from Pettigo, Co Donegal, Mícheál got a job as a labourer. "I began to like it. I joined up with the Fermanagh team. You made friends and it became a home away from home - playing in Gaelic Park on a Sunday, with a barbecue, the band playing, the lovely summer weather." Cheryl got a "good job" as a nanny on the Upper East Side, working 14-hour days from 7am. Mícheál moved up from labourer to carpenter.
"Then they took me into the office and trained me, paid for my engineering classes at night school. Now I'm senior project manager. That would never have happened in Ireland. It was them pushing me".
For the first few years, everyone was visiting them and their status didn't worry them. But when a lottery visa scheme came up, they applied for it through a sponsor. Meanwhile, around Christmas 2000, they had decided they wanted to get married at home in Donegal. Everything was going smoothly. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) - now the US Citizenship and Immigration Services - had indicated by letter that they would be approved. Mícheál checked the wedding dates with his lawyer to ensure that their case would not be harmed by leaving the country at that time. They were told to go ahead, but that turned out to be bad advice. "Because of that, I went home one day before I should have so I wasn't able to prove that I was in the country on that particular date". The McMahons were snookered.
Then came 9/11. "That put everyone back at the bottom of the pile." They've had two children since then, Mícheál junior and Íosa, and both are entitled to American passports. But the parents are legal ghosts and, for an outsider, the complexity of each particular case is difficult to fathom. After 9/11, he says, the crackdown on companies employing illegal immigrants made it too risky for many. "After a second offence, they can close a company down." Although he had paid taxes for 10 years, he never got a social insurance number. Others who came out before 9/11 were luckier, he says: "They managed to get into a union and are paying taxes". Without a number, the system is effectively closed.
They cannot get a mortgage, so they will always be renting. He cannot travel internally or get a driver's licence. "There is always the danger now of being picked up. I don't travel inside America; I never leave the Bronx. For vacation, we go to Manhattan [ a 30-minute train ride] for a week and stay in a hotel in Times Square".
And of course there is no question of a visit to Ireland.
Apart from the wedding trip, only Cheryl has been home in 14 years, for her father's funeral. "That was a massive risk", she says. "I wasn't stopped but that's the luck of the draw". In the meantime, a grandmother has died; a sister got married; Mícheál's youngest sister - seven months old when he left - has grown into her teens without getting to know her only brother. Next year, his parents will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. For Cheryl's parents, Mícheál junior and Íosa are their only grandchildren. The separation cuts deep. "It's no life really," he concedes.
Yet, it seems, there is no going back.
"There was no boom when I was there. No matter how bad things are in New York, there's always work, you can always be a delivery boy. I've made a new life here, I've got two American kids. I don't think there is anyone more deserving. I've spent a third of my life here. How long is the boom going to last in the north of Ireland? What would Ireland do if 25,000 people arrived back there next week ? Is Ireland willing to pay for my kids to go to school, for healthcare? Will it have a house for me and a job ? I don't think so."
He sees the obvious disconnect between his case and the fact that so many others like him returned home during the boom that New York's GAA is struggling to assemble teams. "When we came over, there were 16 hurling teams, now there are only four. A lot went home when the [ immigration reform] bill failed in the American congress. But a lot have decided to come back again. I know two bricklayers who were legal and who went home but are back again because the work is not there for them. Another family moved back [ to Ireland] for 18 months and hated it. They couldn't afford to live the sort of life they had here. They hadn't the same freedom at all." The younger elements of the diaspora can be surprisingly unsentimental about the oul' sod.
MÍCHEÁL PRIDES HIMSELF on the fact that he has "never, ever claimed anything off the state". Their private health insurance costs $245 (€167) a month. Mícheál junior's kindergarten is $5,000 (€3,415) a year: "He won't be a burden on the state, even though he's totally entitled to it", says Mícheál firmly. "My dream is of the day when I can call myself a legal citizen of New York and walk in and pay my taxes."
In that case, they're stuck hard, in a climate as hostile to immigrants as the US has ever seen. "I've never been in trouble a day in my life. But I can't apply for legalisation. I entered this country illegally and that's it."
It's time the Irish Government did something, he says. "My brother came through Shannon and said it's like an American army base. How many other countries are doing that? Yet Bertie Ahern can't just call George Bush . . . The action group at home have met politicians such as Ahern and Eamon Ryan but it's always the same thing: 'This is a complex issue.' I thought governments were meant to deal with complex issues." Cheryl interjects gently: "It is complex. This isn't only about the Irish."