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To what extent should immigrants trust the Citizen Information website?

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Until last week, Ashley Westpheling thought she had to wait three more years to apply for Irish citizenship.

But it looks like she could actually apply for citizenship next year. “Which is really exciting for me,” Westpheling said recently on a Zoom call.

The confusion stems from the fact that whether or not years spent in the country count towards the time needed to obtain citizenship depends on the status the person has during that time.

Westpheling, a non-European migrant, had always assumed that her two years on a 1G stamp as a graduate of an Irish university didn’t count.

But they do, a Justice Department spokesperson said Sept. 16. Both for graduates and skilled worker partners who obtain an immigration stamp with the same name, they said.

Misinformation about immigration rules is circulating on the internet. The Department of Justice website is far from clear on the 1G stamp, and even the Citizens Information Guide to becoming an Irish citizen states that time spent on the stamp as a graduate is not counted.

Immigration lawyers say some inaccuracies can have significant consequences given how often, in the absence of legal aid for immigration cases without asylum, people turn to information citizens for legal advice.

Cathy Gerrard, head of digital content at the Citizens’ Information Council, said it has a strong fact-checking and fact-checking system.

“All published information is verified against official sources or provided directly by a relevant ministry or agency,” Gerrard said.

Mistakes can happen very occasionally, she said. “We will always fix them as soon as they come to our attention.”

A Justice Department spokesperson did not explain why its website does not clearly state that the 1G stamp for graduates and skilled worker partners counts toward citizenship.

Communication gaps

Westpheling completed his masters program at University College Dublin (UCD) in 2019 and transferred his status to a 1G Stamp, granted to immigrants from outside the European Union who graduate from Irish universities.

Masters and PhD graduates can live and work in Ireland without a work permit for up to two years, although they must renew to get that second year, which can be tricky if their job searches were unsuccessful.

Currently, Westpheling has another status again. She left her 1G stamp after two years when she married an Irish citizen. Now she’s on the coveted Stamp 4.

But she always assumed her two years on the 1G stamp didn’t count toward citizenship, she says.

“I had searched, I looked at forums, and I have a lot of friends who were also on 1G, and there was always this consensus that it’s not accounting,” Westpheling says.

Westpheling says she wouldn’t think of double-checking the information on the Citizens’ Information website. “Definitely not, which is maybe my own problem,” she said.

Stephen Kirwan, a partner and attorney at law firm KOD Lyons, said he began to doubt himself when reading the website. “I was going, but I applied for clients for years.”

Says Kirwan: “You’ll never really know how many people were affected by this and deterred from applying for citizenship when they could.”

In 2020, just over 1.2 million users visited the “moving country” section of the Citizens Information website, where its guide to becoming an Irish citizen can be found, according to the Citizens Information board’s latest annual report, which dates of 2020.

This section also contains information for asylum seekers and refugees. In August he said refugees brought to Ireland on humanitarian programs were entitled to a travel document allowing visa-free travel to several European countries, which is not true.

Last month, Citizens Information updated the relevant section of its website to clarify that this was not the case.

Elsewhere too

The Department of Justice’s own website is not very clear on the conditions surrounding the 1G stamp for graduates.

He explains that it is a postgraduate stamp and people can work there without a work permit.

But he has a line that can be interpreted as suggesting he doesn’t count for citizenship: “While on stamp 1G, your other permissions and conditions remain the same as on stamp 2.”

Stamp 2, granted to third-level, English-speaking non-European students, does not count for citizenship.

The fact that 1G is counted – which means that time spent counts towards the years needed in the country to obtain citizenship – is only mentioned in the section containing information on the 1G stamp granted to partners of skilled workers.

Wendy Lyon, partner and solicitor at Abbey Law, also says the Citizenship Residency Calculator on the website has not been updated to include the 1G stamp since it was introduced for graduates and skilled worker partners.

Lost Shades

Kirwan, the attorney, says immigration rules and policies are sometimes so nuanced that they don’t fit into a binary.

As on paper, migrants who have usually lived here for a year are entitled to most healthcare services, as the Citizens Information website suggests.

But his company has had cases of migrants being blocked from accessing certain medical procedures, such as organ transplants because they were undocumented or had a student stamp.

Kirwan says Citizens Information is an excellent resource that communicates complex information in simple, concise language. But inaccuracies can be dangerous, he says.

People rely on the immigration information on the site, which is repeated in social media groups as hard truth, misinforming people of their rights, he says.

It’s hard to convince someone that something they’ve read on Citizens Information is fake, he says.

“It takes on a life of its own, you know what I mean, and again, it’s not to denigrate citizen information and the great service it provides,” Kirwan said. “But there’s a huge limit to what they can do.”

A disclaimer stating that people might need to verify the accuracy of certain legal information on its website is one idea for dealing with that, Kirwan says. “But maybe that defeats the purpose.”

Both Kirwan and Lyon say providing legal aid without asylum might be a better option for tackling immigration misinformation. Right now, Kirwan said, most people don’t get professional legal services.

“As if they come to see a private practitioner, most decent practitioners, and as bad as it sounds, most of us will charge a fee,” says Kirwan.

Lyon says, “I think the lack of legal help for most immigration cases forces people to rely on the internet to an unhealthy degree.

A Department of Justice spokesperson said Attorney General Helen McEntee recently gave the green light to a thorough review of the civil legal aid scheme to chart its future.

“A service that will provide a flexible service that has, where possible, the capacity and resources to meet the priority legal assistance needs of those without sufficient means,” they said.

However, they did not say whether immigration legal aid is in the future of the program.

Westpheling, a UCD graduate, says misinformation about the 1G stamp is one of the reasons some of her friends have given up their job searches in Ireland and left.

“If they knew it counted for citizenship, they might have been motivated to try to find a solution,” she says.

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