That Dáil Éireann shares the dismay and condemnation articulated internationally and in the U.S. following the recent U.S. policy of removing children from their immigrant parents to take them into custody, views this as inhumane, undignified and unwarranted, and calls for it to be reversed immediately.
I speak in favour of the all-party motion and the sentiments it conveys. I thank Opposition parties for working to try to find agreement on the motion that we are all supporting.
We have all been rightly appalled by the images which have recently emerged of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the southern US border and held in detention by the US authorities. I have no desire to become involved in a US domestic debate about immigration. Clearly, every state has the right, indeed, a duty, to police its own borders and to enforce its immigration laws. This duty should, however, be discharged by all countries in line with international obligations and with respect for the human rights of all involved, especially children.
It would be helpful at the outset of this debate to outline the factors which have brought us to what is, in my opinion, a shocking and unacceptable situation. As the House will be aware, the issue of immigration has long been a politically sensitive one in the United States. We are all familiar with the situation of undocumented Irish citizens in the US. Many of us on all sides of the House will have discussed the plight of our citizens over the years with representatives of successive US Administrations and with politicians from both sides of the US political divide. We know first-hand how sensitive and challenging the issue of migration is in Washington.
The sensitivity of the issue has become even more acute in recent years. The southern border with Mexico has featured heavily in recent political campaigns and this led to the announcement in April this year of a so-called zero tolerance approach, whereby any adult found to be entering the United States illegally is liable to automatic criminal prosecution. I understand that US legal protocols prohibit the detention of children along with their parents where the children are not charged with a crime but the parents are so charged. It is as a consequence of this zero tolerance approach that, while adults are being detained by the US Marshals Service or the Bureau of Prisons pending a federal trial, their children are being separated from them and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.
According to US Customs and Border Protection, since early April, 2,300 children have been separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border and placed in detention. It is unclear how long these children will be separated from their families, but clearly such a policy risks having a traumatic effect on young children. As the Taoiseach said yesterday, we know from our own recent history how damaging the consequences can be of separating children from their parents. A number of medical organisations in the US have issued strong letters of protest citing an increased risk of anxiety and depression in the affected children as well as risks of post-traumatic stress and attention deficit disorder. Prior to this, the US authorities had followed policies that ensured that immigrant families who arrived illegally were not automatically split up when parents and children were detained. This approach was followed by the US Administration until April.
Deputies will have seen the shocking images of cages, foil blankets and crying children at US detention centres near the border and will be aware of widespread criticism of this policy from business groups, human rights organisations and many prominent Americans from across the political spectrum. All four living former US first ladies have publicly expressed opposition to this programme. I cannot do much better than quote Mrs. Laura Bush who said:
I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.
This dismay is also reflected in wider civil society across the United States. We are by no means alone in voicing our concern in this House.
The United States and Ireland enjoy a unique relationship, built historically on the emigration of so many of our people to that country. This history of migration to the United States long predates US independence in 1776 and was particularly acute during the dark Famine years of the 1840s and in the generations that followed, right up to recent decades. This movement of people from Ireland to the United States formed the foundation of what is now a 33 million strong Irish-American diaspora.
Irish America has made an immense contribution to the United States, something that we should all be proud of. The US provided a refuge from persecution and poverty to generations of Irish people as it opened its doors not just to us but to many millions of immigrants from all over the world who will never forget their generosity and openness. We, the people of Ireland, will be forever indebted to the people of the United States for that welcome when our need was at its greatest.
We understand and accept that no country could now afford to have the kind of open immigration laws the US had in the 19th century. We in the European Union have ourselves struggled to agree on how best to deal with the challenges posed by large movements of people fleeing violence and despair in their home countries and seeing within our borders the prospects of a better life for themselves and their families. We have also seen, however, the terrible human suffering which lies at the heart of such migration, and we are acutely conscious of our responsibilities to afford protection to people who find themselves and their families in the most trying and dangerous of circumstances. We are particularly aware of the need to safeguard the rights and well-being of children who have been caught up in situations far beyond their control.
Ireland, in common with all member states of the European Union, has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which establishes clear universal standards for the protection of all children. The convention states that signatories shall ensure that children shall not be separated from their parents against their will, unless such a separation is necessary in the best interests of the child. I cannot see any way in which the current policy could be said to be in the best interests of the children who have been separated from their parents. While the United States has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the only UN member which has not done so, nevertheless there is surely an onus on all of us to pay due regard to internationally accepted standards of behaviour in the implementation of our laws.
It is doubly unfortunate that, just yesterday, at a time when international attention was focused on the treatment by the US of immigrant children, the US announced its intention to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council. This is a big setback in the standing of the US in the world. The United States has long been a key player in the development of a rules-based, multilateral system which has placed human rights at the centre of international relations. Famously, this included the leading role played by US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt 70 years ago in securing agreement on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States has a long and proud tradition of participating in multilateral fora in defence of human rights. Its continued full and active participation is essential to challenge the chorus of those who seek to decry and diminish the universal value of human rights. Now is not the time for the US to be stepping back from its international leadership responsibilities. The United States, as I have said, is entitled to police its own borders and enforce its immigration laws. It is clear to me, however, that the US authorities are not going about this the right way when it comes to dealing with families who have been apprehended while trying to enter the United States illegally across its southern border.
I hope that our friends in the United States will take these comments in the spirit in which they are intended, as friends speaking truthfully to one another, with a genuine concern. I am speaking here as a friend, as someone who looks to the United States for global leadership. Against this backdrop, it is deeply regrettable to see the good name of America being damaged by the shocking images that have been seen around the world in recent days. The policy of separating children from their parents is inhumane and simply wrong. This is not the America that I know and respect, nor is it in the best traditions of the great and generous American people. I urge the US, therefore, to reverse this policy of separation immediately, and I think everybody in this House is making the same call. I call on the US authorities to return these children to their parents without delay before potentially irreversible damage is done to them and also to the reputation of the United States.
I think there is some good news on the horizon. We have been hearing from Washington D.C. that the President intends to sign a document today that may well end this practice, and do so quickly, but we will await details with interest.