Eris Zhi Ying Xue and I have a couple of things in common, it transpires.
We were both born in Dublin and spent our entire childhoods there. We both started our education in the same school, St Cronan’s in Bray.
Both of us speak English as our first language, and neither of us has ever known any home except Ireland.
But I can never be deported from Ireland, because I am a citizen.
Eric may be about to be deported to China, because as the law stands here he can never be a citizen.
The fact that Eric knows nothing about China, the fact that everything he knows and loves is right here — none of that has anything to do with what might happen to him now.
The only thing that matters is that in 2004 we decided we didn’t want the likes of Eric living here.
We voted, by an overwhelming majority, to change the Constitution. Until we made that change, if you were born in Ireland you had a right to Irish citizenship.
After we made the change, even if you were born in Ireland you had to be able to prove Irish parentage before you could apply for citizenship.
It was a fundamental change, made in fear.
As the minister for justice, Michael McDowell, said in the Dáil when he was proposing the change: “I am aware… anecdotally… of women from eastern Europe and elsewhere in the world… who have come here on holiday visas, given birth, collected the birth certificate and the passport for the child and returned home… I have no practical way of stopping that sort of maternity holiday.
"I have been criticised for using the expression ‘citizenship tourism’… but that is precisely what we are faced with.
"The point is that an unintended effect of the wonderful achievement of the Good Friday Agreement, in advancing the peace process on this island, is the opportunity for this sort of abuse.
We were being abused, you see. The Good Friday Agreement was somehow or other sending out a signal to foreign women that they could come here, fill up our maternity wards, get the passport for the newborn baby and head off home.
We were going to be overrun by foreign babies, and as soon as these babies grew up they’d be landing back on our shores with their parents by the hand.
All sorts of other reasons were advanced for making the change as well. It was to bring us into line with every other European country, because Europe wanted a common set of rules about citizenship.
It was to do away with an abuse that had hundreds of people claiming Irish citizenship who had no connection with the country, apart from an accident of birth.
It wasn’t just that the maternity hospitals were being overrun by all these foreigners, it was also because the senior staff of the hospitals had pleaded with the Government to change the law.
And after all, we had to face up to the open door policies being advocated by the left, in Ireland and everywhere else.
There was nothing racist about the need to stem the flow of immigrants — if we didn’t act now there would be no possibility of every preventing a massive horde of foreigners from effectively taking us over.
It was all nonsense then, and it’s nonsense still.
From start to finish of the miserable referendum campaign back in 2004, nobody offered a shred of evidence to prove abuse of our immigration system.
And heaven knows we’ve seen more than enough evidence to know how rigid, bureaucratic and unwelcoming our system is, and always has been.
But we fell for it anyway. There was a time we needed immigrants, to build houses, provide services, and otherwise keep the fires of the Celtic Tiger roaring. But we never wanted them, never wanted to make them feel at home or part of the community.
That’s why we coined language like citizenship tourism or bogus asylum seekers. It’s why we have this quite unique constitutional provision now.
Most constitutions around the world, if they deal with the issue of citizenship, set out the qualifications.
Our constitution, thanks to the 2004 referendum, talks about citizenship in terms of disqualifications.
Article 9 now says that a person born here is not entitled to Irish citizenship or nationality unless he or she can prove they have at least one parent who is an Irish citizen.
In other words, Eric — who is as Irish as I am in every way that matters — can not only not qualify for citizenship, he can’t even call himself Irish. No citizenship, no nationality.
And the only consequence of it all is children like Eric. And Nonso Muojeke, who was on the point of being deported from Tullamore after living most of his life there, until he was granted leave to remain by Charlie Flanagan (who of course has the discretion to enable Eric and his mother to stay too).
I wonder though. Do you think we could decide that we had made our point, and that we had finally put a stop to all these citizenship tourists that we used to be so afraid of?
If so, we could have another look at Article 9, and one little phrase at the end of it that we have largely ignored. If you’re born in Ireland, you can’t be a citizen unless you can prove an Irish parent — unless provided for by law.
So it would actually be possible for us to have a citizenship law that recognised someone born here, raised here, educated here, someone who became an intrinsic part of the local community, as a potential citizen of the country.
It wouldn’t be the easiest law in the world to draft, and no doubt there would always be exceptions even to that law, but wouldn’t it be both a logical and a humane way to proceed?
Eric Zhi Ying Xue is one of those things that keep cropping up in Irish public policy.
He’s an unintended consequence. But he’s also a nine-year-old boy, surrounded by people who care for him and want him to stay.
The minister for justice can make that happen right now, but there is surely a strong case for taking a fresh look at the entire legislative framework.
Even if we really believed, back then, that we had to protect our borders from being trampled down by thousands of pregnant foreign women, surely none but the most cold-blooded want us to be in the business of deporting children?
If we don’t want to be in that business, it’s time to look again at the law. There’s no need to be afraid of invading hordes.
But there’s every need to lift the fear from children and their families.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved