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State admits lack of control over US preclearance at airports

Cabinet told it has no legal power over US immigration decisions despite promised review

US president Donald Trump: the Government appears to have no sway over decisions made in US immigration pre-clearance at Irish airports. Photograph: Ron Sachs

Less than a day after the Taoiseach promised a “complete review” of US immigration facilities at Irish airports, the Government has conceded it has no power over how they operate.

The review was promised by Enda Kenny in response to US president Donald Trump’s order temporarily banning travellers from seven Muslim countries and refugees worldwide.

At yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, Ministers were briefed by Attorney General Máire Whelan on the legal situation regarding the US pre-clearance facilities at Shannon and Dublin. These allow travellers to go through immigration controls here, avoiding checks at US airports.

The Cabinet was told, according to sources present, that Irish authorities have no legal powers to intervene in the decisions made by US immigration authorities, even if they are made in Irish airports.

Later, a spokesman confirmed the Government’s view was the role of US officials to admit travellers or not “and how they do it, is not something that we can interfere with”.

Government sources said all Ministers, including some who had previously questioned the operation of the pre-clearance facilities following Mr Trump’s order, agreed with this position.

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However, the Government’s view is disputed by Irish civil liberties organisations and some legal academics, who say the agreement between the two governments makes it clear it can only be operated in accordance with both Irish and US law.

Bilateral agreement

The agreement made between the two governments, which dates from 2008, explicitly recognises that it does not diminish “the rights enjoyed by individuals under the laws and Constitution of Ireland”.

The Government said the review would still proceed, and Irish and US officials are due to meet on March 1st.

The Cabinet also backed the Taoiseach’s decision to visit Mr Trump in Washington on St Patrick’s Day, though Mr Kenny assured the Dáil he would convey Ireland’s opposition to the new immigration policies and express its condemnation of torture.

He also said he was assured by the US authorities that holders of dual nationality who originated in one of the banned countries could still travel to the US as long as they used their Irish passports.

This was confirmed by the US embassy in Dublin last night. “The executive order does not restrict the travel of dual nationals, so long as they hold the passport of an unrestricted country and possess a valid US visa,” it said.

Political tensions escalated in Washington over the contentious immigration ban as Democrats sought to delay Mr Trump’s cabinet appointments by boycotting key congressional votes.

Hours after he fired acting attorney general Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, for refusing to defend his order temporarily banning travellers from seven Muslim countries and refugees worldwide, Democrats blocked a vote on his pick for attorney general, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions.

War of words

Senate Democrats also failed to show up to planned votes on two of the Republican president’s other cabinet nominees – treasury secretary nominee, Steve Mnuchin, and his choice for health secretary, Tom Price.

The White House engaged in a war of words with reporters and defended the chaotic rollout of the new immigration rules that led to the detention of legal migrants, mass protests and court challenges over the weekend.

Mr Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, insisted the order was “extreme vetting” rather than a “ travel ban”, even though the president himself had called it “a ban”.

In an interview with The Irish Times, the Irish-American businessman in the running to be next US ambassador to Ireland said the goal of Mr Trump’s immigration order was “very well-motivated” but that it was “too soon” to interpret the measures. Florida-based lawyer and philanthropist Brian Burns (80), whom Mr Trump has told the US media he intends to make his envoy to Dublin, said he should be “sympathetic” towards undocumented Irish immigrants in the US.