Hernán Rozemberg - Express-News
The moment border agents in a desolate, brush-laden highway in South Texas asked him to pull over for further questioning, Pól Brennan knew he was in for a long day.
But he never thought he'd end up behind bars in the Rio Grande Valley, waiting to get the boot back to a place he long ago had put out of his mind.
Even though U.S. authorities have known about Brennan, a fugitive militant from Northern Ireland who originally came into this country 24 years ago using another person's passport, they essentially have looked the other way for more than a decade, allowing him to remain in the country in legal limbo.
Brennan, now sitting in a Raymondville immigration prison, said recently he has become the U.S. government's latest immigrant patsy.
“I'm a product of the anti-immigrant bent this administration is pushing,” Brennan, 56, a former member of the Irish Republican Army, a guerrilla outfit that employed terrorist tactics in a decades-old fight against British rule, said by phone. “They're doing anything to clean up the system, even if it makes no sense.”
If there was a time he'd run into trouble, he said, it would have been more than two decades ago after he illegally entered and settled in the country. Brennan sought clandestine exile here after he and 37 IRA activists took part in a famous prison break — dubbed “The Great Escape” — from the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast.
He'd served eight of 16 years after being convicted of bomb and firearms possession.
Brennan's new shadow life, settling down in San Francisco as a carpenter, thrived until he applied for a U.S. passport under a newly assumed identity.
Background checks on his application eventually led authorities to unearth his fugitive status, and the FBI arrested him in 1993.
He was imprisoned in the Bay Area for more than three years. But he thought he finally was home free in 1998 when, as part of a U.S.-brokered agreement to end the violence in Ireland, Brennan and other IRA militants in America were given “deferred action” — immigration limbo status allowing renewable yearly work permits with governmental discretion to seek deportation at any time.
That discretion now is being applied to Brennan's case, after Border Patrol officials questioned him and his wife, Joanna Volz, at the agency's checkpoint in Sarita on U.S. 77 in January when they were on their way to Austin after visiting Volz's mother in Brownsville.
Brennan pleaded his case with border agents for six hours to no avail, even as his lawyer faxed records from San Francisco.
Border agents concluded Brennan's work permit had expired — he countered he had applied but not yet received a new one — and thus he was in the country illegally.
“You should have seen those border agents — they thought they had caught Osama bin Laden,” said Volz, 62.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for the detention and deportation of unauthorized immigrants, declined to comment on the case.
Besides the expired work document and fraudulently entering the country, the agency's deportation case also is backed by Brennan's 1995 felony conviction for buying a gun with a fake identity.
Representatives with the Irish and British governments also declined interviews, citing confidentiality issues. They wouldn't clarify which country would take Brennan back if he's ordered to leave.
Beyond the terms of the international agreement allowing him to stay, Brennan also cites a years-long asylum application that has yet to be decided, as well as a more recent sponsorship petition through Volz, who's a U.S. citizen.
There's also a fledgling political movement backing Brennan, including an online petition that has garnered nearly 1,000 signatures.
Three U.S. congressmen are calling for him to at least be released on bond — a call seconded by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the largest Irish-American group in the country — saying he's not a flight risk since he previously put up a $1 million bail in California and never disappeared.
Brennan's not shy about openly discussing his past revolutionary politics, but his dedication to Irish independence has got nothing to do with his clean life in the United States, he insisted.
“They did nothing to us in the eight years since they let us out and now all of a sudden we're being thrown into the terrorist threat mix,” he said. “I haven't been hiding. And if you look at my record here, I'm a law-abiding citizen. I pay my taxes. I'm a working stiff.”
Should he lose his case and end up deported, Brennan said he undoubtedly will be dispatched straight to prison in Northern Ireland. That move would be equivalent to a death sentence, he noted, since his former enemies would find a way to get him.
If he's sent packing, Volz is not sure what she will do. She already has uprooted her life in San Francisco and settled in Brownsville to be closer to him, as well as to care for her ailing mother.
She was clueless about the past politics of the man she fell in love with after he asked her to dance in a bar. Volz initially was shocked when, after they had moved in together, he told her a family featured in a U.S.
magazine article she was reading on the Irish conflict was his family.
He was the unidentified man mentioned as being on the lam.
Though she would have preferred to hear the story up front, Volz agreed with Brennan's political convictions and they stayed together, eventually marrying.
The conflict in Ireland is centuries old, dating to the 16th-century Reformation when the British, who claimed Ireland, adopted Protestantism.
The independent Republic of Ireland was created in 1949, but deep divisions turned into bloody struggle in the smaller northern portion of the island that maintained allegiance to London, as Northern Ireland and as the Catholic majority unsuccessfully tried to boot out Protestant British loyalists.