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Tánaiste's remarks on separation of children from their parents at southern U.S. border

International Relations, Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Speech, North America, 2018


Tánaiste's Remarks – Dáil debate on separation of children from their parents at southern U.S. border



Ceann Comhairle,


I wish to speak in favour this evening of the all-party motion and the sentiments it conveys.

We have all been rightly appalled by the images which have recently emerged of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border and held in detention by the U.S. authorities.

I have no desire to become involved in a U.S. domestic debate about immigration. Clearly, every state has the right, indeed the duty, to police its own borders and to enforce its immigration laws.

This duty should, however, be discharged in the case of all countries in line with their international obligations and with respect for the human rights of all involved, especially children.

I think 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 very politically sensitive issue in the United States.

We are all familiar with the situation of undocumented Irish citizens in the U.S. 

Many of us, on all sides of the House, will over the years have discussed the plight of our citizens with representatives of successive U.S. administrations and with politicians from both sides of the U.S. political divide.

We know first-hand, then, how sensitive and challenging an issue this is for our friends in the U.S.

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 illegally entering the United States is liable to automatic criminal prosecution.

I understand that U.S. 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 U.S. Marshal’s 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 U.S. Customs and Border Protection, since early April, some 2,300 children have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-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 impact 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Administration until April.  

Deputies will have seen the shocking images of cages, foil blankets, and crying children at U.S. detention centres near the border and will be aware of widespread criticisms of this policy from business groups, human rights organisations and many prominent Americans from across the political spectrum.

All four living former U.S. First Ladies have publicly expressed opposition to this programme.

I can do no better than quote 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 in the United States. 

It is worth noting here the concerns raised by the Evangelical Immigration Table and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, among so many others, in speaking out against this policy. In addition, polls carried out on behalf of a number of U.S. media outlets suggest that a clear majority of Americans also disapprove of the administration's approach on this issue.

So we are by no means alone in voicing our concerns at this policy.

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 pre-dates U.S. 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. And Irish-Americans have made an immense contribution to the United States, of which we are very proud.

The U.S. provided to generations of Irish people a refuge from persecution and from poverty as it opened its doors, not just to us, but to many millions of immigrants from all over the world. 

We will never forget that generosity and openness. And we the people of Ireland will be forever indebted to the people of the United States for that welcome, when our need was greatest. 

We of course understand and accept that no country could now afford to have the kind of open immigration laws the U.S. 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 responsibility to afford protection to people who find themselves and their families in the most trying of circumstances. 

We are particularly aware of the need to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of children who have been caught up in situations 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 protecting 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 for 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 State 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 focussed on the treatment by the U.S. of immigrant children, the U.S. announced its decision to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council.  

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 includes the leading role played by U.S. 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 participation at 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 U.S. to be stepping back from its international responsibilities.

The United States, as I have said, is entitled to police its own borders and enforce its immigration laws.

However, it is clear to me that the U.S. authorities are not going about this the right way when it comes to dealing with families who have been apprehended while trying to illegally enter the United States across its southern border.

I hope that our friends the United States will take these comments in the spirit in which there are intended - as friends speaking truthfully to one another, out of genuine concern.

I am speaking here today as a friend, as someone who looks to the United States for global leadership.

Against this backdrop, then, 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 it is 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 therefore urge the U.S. government to immediately reverse this policy of separation.

I call on the U.S. authorities to return these children to their parents without delay, before irreversible damage is done to them and also further damage to the reputation of the United States.   

Thank you.