- 03 Dec 20
Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee TD, said that she believed in, and supported, the inclusive message and the essence of The Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland Bill.
Irish senators, in a rare show of unanimity, yesterday supported a Labour Party Bill aimed at granting citizenship rights to Irish-born children, regardless of their parents’ immigration status.
The Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland Bill of 2018, also known as the Born Here, Belong Here initiative, is in Committee Stage and had returned to the Seanad for further debate.
Speaking in the Seanad, Labour Senator Ivana Bacik commended members of Labour Youth for their tireless work on the inclusive initiative, dedicating her speech to the late chairperson of the group, Cormac Ó Braonáin.
Ó Braonáin who died in a traffic collision last December was a 'passionate supporter’ of the rights of Irish-born children, Senator Bacik said.
The bill, she explained, was also inspired by the predicament of a nine-year-old child in Bray, Co Wicklow. The child was born here, yet was facing deportation, causing his young classmates to plead with the State to keep him home.
Eric Zhi Ying Mei Xue, born to undocumented Chinese parents in Ireland, was a student in fourth-class in St Cronan’s National School. He was facing deportation in 2019. Following a petition which was signed by 67,000 people – and coupled with the support of Government Ministers, including then-Minister for Health Simon Harris TD – the child and his family secured the right to remain in the State.
The background to Eric Zhi Ying Mei Xue’s experience is chastening. It was a decision taken in a referendum – which was held in 2004 – to insert the 27th Amendment into the Irish Constitution which was being used to deny citizenship to children born on the island of Ireland, whose immigration status was insecure.
However, Senator Bacik – who is a law Professor in Trinity College – and fellow party member Annie Hoey, stressed that the current bill is within the legal framework of the referendum.
“The 2004 referendum amendment gives the Oireachtas exclusive power to legislate citizenship pathways, “ Senator Bacik said, “and many who have supported the 2004 referendum have agreed that this sort of legislation is required.”
She made the point that the bill is respectful of the public's will at the time.
Senator Hoey said that she was too young to participate in the referendum in 2004, but she was committed to "righting the wrong" today.
Hoey said, she didn’t believe that the referendum was held with ill intentions. Nevertheless, she said, it yielded ‘mean-spirited’ outcomes.
“We’ve seen a lot of comments online saying, ‘Well, we voted for this’. But we also voted for a clause to allow us to legislate, which is exactly what this bill does,” she said.
Fear and Anxiety
Speaking in support of the proposal, Sinn Féin Senator Lynn Boylan, observed that misinformation spurred the referendum in 2004.
She said figures issued at the time on the so-called 'anchor babies' – which partly prompted the notion that a referendum was needed – were inaccurate as the numbers also included the statistics on babies born to non-Irish mothers with Irish fathers as well as babies born to parents with EU citizenship.
“It’s like the Government holding a referendum today after seeing a racist meme on Facebook,” Senator Boylan said.
Lynn Boylan welcomed the proposal as another positive step toward in the fight against racism and far-right bigotry in the country.
"Racism must be resisted everywhere, and the far-right is on the rise in this country, and we must remain vigilant and not to pander to them," she said.
Independent Senator Eileen Flynn said that during her short time working in Migrants Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), she had met paperless children who had been harshly impacted by the 2004 referendum.
“I got to meet the most powerful young people in the world,” she said, “and that's not in a patronising way because I hate when people say, 'Oh you're a brilliant young Traveller woman’.”
Senator Flynn urged Minister Helen McEntee to eradicate fear and anxiety from the lives of Irish-born children with undocumented parents.
“These young people grew up in an Ireland,” she said, “where they didn’t know when a knock would come at the door and tell them that they have to get out of the country.
“I remember seeing these young people putting a paper over their faces so they couldn’t be identified for who they are.”
Labour Senator Rebecca Moynihan (pictured) made the point that it was ironic to see the Irish State campaigning for the regularisation of undocumented Irish people in the US – a country that respects citizenship rights of children born to undocumented Irish parents.
In response, the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee TD, said that she believed in, and supported, the inclusive message and the essence of the bill. She acknowledged that efforts for regularisation of undocumented migrants would impact on the lives of 17,000 people – a figure which includes 3,000 children.
The Minister said that Ireland has benefited from migration, "economically, socially and culturally."
In a speech that at times showed her liberal credentials, she praised her colleague Green Party Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman TD, pointing out that both departments had already taken positive steps toward regularising undocumented immigrants in the State.
She cited the scheme to regularise non-EEA nationals, who had become undocumented following a lapsed student permission, but had maintained a lawful presence in the State for at least two years. As of September 2020, she said, her Department had decided on 3,106 of such cases, granting 2,253 people the right to reside in the State and refusing just 53 applications.
The Minister emphasised that careful consideration must be given to what she referred to as the broad consequences of the Labour-introduced proposal, if it were passed in its original form. She said that the bill would place Ireland in a ‘unique’ position in the EU, granting not only Irish citizenship but European citizenship to Irish-born children of undocumented migrants.
"We do need to be conscious of those unintended consequences of changing our immigration laws at the time [when] Covid-19 and Brexit are already likely to negatively impact the economy and employment levels," she argued.
“This has potentially wider implications for State services looking at, obviously, immigration provision, but also housing, education, medical services, welfare.
“ I just think that all these needs must be carefully assessed,” she added.
The hearing was adjourned after about an hour of debate. The bill is slated to return to the Seanad for further debate in January 2021.