A proposed law on the subject passed a preliminary vote in the Irish Senate on Wednesday, three days after an opinion poll for the Irish edition of The Sunday Times of London showed that 71 percent of respondents favor birthright citizenship, while 19 percent were opposed and 10 percent undecided.
Should it be enacted, the proposed law would grant the right to citizenship to any person who is born in Ireland and subsequently lives in the country for three years, regardless of the parents’ citizenship or residency status. It would largely reverse the effect of a 2004 referendum in which 79 percent of voters supported the removal of a constitutional provision granting citizenship to anyone born in Ireland.
This remarkable swing in public opinion, at a time when President Donald Trump has called for ending birthright citizenship in the United States, follows a high-profile case in which Eric Zhi Ying Xue, a 9-year-old boy who was born in Ireland, was threatened in October with deportation along with his Chinese mother.
His teachers and classmates at St. Cronan’s School in County Wicklow rallied around him, and a petition asking the government not to deport Eric or his mother collected 50,000 signatures within a few days. The family was instead given three months to make a case to be given legal permission to remain in the country, a possible route to full citizenship.
As popular as it may be, the birthright citizenship proposal has one critical opponent: the Irish government, which says it will seek to defeat the new bill.
The government’s opposition is based on the special relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland, said a spokesman for the Department of Justice and Equality, which has responsibility for immigration matters.
Although Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, its people are legally entitled to both British and Irish citizenship. The Irish government fears that people living illegally in Britain could move to Northern Ireland, give birth to a child there and obtain Irish citizenship for their child after living there for three years.
The parents could then use the child’s citizenship to obtain residency anywhere in Ireland or the United Kingdom which, though separate countries, confer extensive mutual residency and travel rights on each other’s citizens.
There are also concerns that British residents seeking to retain European rights to free movement after Britain leaves the European Union might use the same mechanism to obtain citizenship in the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the bloc.
The spokesman also said the present path to citizenship for those born in Ireland was aligned with the provisions in most other EU member states, and the government had the discretion to make exceptions in difficult cases. Under the current system, a person born in Ireland must have at least one Irish parent, or several years of legal residency in Ireland by a parent, to qualify for citizenship.
Sen. Ivana Bacik, who introduced the bill, said the current immigration system was too slow and too dependent on the opaque decisions of officials.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of cases of children born and raised in Ireland, yet who are threatened with deportation because their parents’ immigration cases have dragged on for years and years,” Bacik said.
“In cases like Eric’s, the ministers tend to intervene under public pressure and give leave to remain,” she said. “But it shouldn’t be up to the classmates of frightened children to mount campaigns to have them stay in the country.”
Bacik said her bill had the support of the three main opposition parties, and she was confident it would pass all stages in the Senate. But its prospects in the more powerful lower house, the Dail, are less certain.
“Whether it can pass in the Dail remains to be seen, but I’m hopeful,” she said. “The government is more trenchant in its opposition than we expected. Their talk in the Senate about new waves of immigrants was almost Trumpian. But even if they can defeat this bill, they will still have to do something to regularize people in this position.”
The Irish Council for Immigrants, an independent nongovernmental organization, said that Eric’s case was part of a broader problem relating to the registration and legalization of children who were either born in Ireland to immigrants in the country illegally or brought to the country when they were very young.
This year, students, teachers and parents at a school in Tullamore, County Offaly, successfully fought the deportation of Nonso Muojeke, a 14-year-old who was born in Nigeria but has lived in Ireland since he was 2.
“It is really the classmates of these children who are standing up for them,” said Pippa Woolnough, spokeswoman for the Irish Council for Immigrants. “It’s people saying, ‘Hang on, this is Eric or Nonso; I play with him after school and he’s part of our community. He’s as Irish as I am.’”
Immigrant support groups complain that Ireland’s immigration system is intimidating, inconsistent, slow and difficult to navigate. They want the government to make the system more streamlined and transparent, so that children threatened with deportation do not have to lobby in the hope that someone with influence will take an interest in their case.
Maeve Tierney, principal of St. Cronan’s, where Eric is a student, said that she had heard from other schools that there could be several hundred more cases similar to those of Eric and Nonso, and that the government may have opposed the proposed changes for fear of setting a precedent.
But she said the current system was unfair and unsustainable.
“I’m not saying open the doors to everyone and anyone,” she said. “Any system can be exploited. But this is just wrong.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.