“One of the critical issues that we have to confront is illegal immigration, because this is a multi-headed Hydra that affects our economy, our health care, our education systems, our national security, and also our local criminality.”
– Allen West, former United States Congressman
By TIMOTHY ROBERTS
One of the duties charged to the government of a country is to objectively maintain social order, free from discrimination, with the view to keeping the peace of a nation.
How well a nation’s social order is maintained determines the social health of a nation. When one reads the daily newspaper it does not take long to see that our country is terribly ill and in need of emergency care.
This tangled mess that afflicts our nation is a vine with many roots; yet there is a common root for most of our issues – lack of enforcement. Illegal immigration is one such root issue that has widespread consequences that stem from lack of enforcement.
As a resident of Abaco for many years, and having spent time here as a youth, I have seen the ripple effect that lack of enforcement has brought to this island’s society. It is the 800 pound gorilla everyone talks about from time to time yet there is no hope that it will be dealt with.
Rising from the unfettered influx of illegal immigrants specifically from Haiti (the largest people group entering illegally) are numerous shanty towns – unauthorized makeshift slums built of plywood and scrap lumber and lacking proper sanitation.
While New Providence claims that, at last count, they are believed to have 37 shanty towns, Abaco claims some of the largest in size. The Mudd and Pigeon Pea – two shanty towns that sit side by side in the heart of Marsh Harbour – are home to thousands of illegal immigrants.
Obviously these large illegal communities did not spring up overnight but took a course of decades to develop. As best as can be learned the genesis of these particular communities in Abaco started four or more decades ago during the more successful years of agriculture in Abaco.
It is believed that the door to Haitian migrants was cracked open by Scott and Matson (S&M) Farms during the late 1950s when S & M bought the Crockett acreage and brought in Haitians or possibly found enough here to meet their needs. Initially the farms brought in only male workers, but eventually wives, siblings and children were sent for and smuggled in.
In the early 1970’s the first permission was granted for a house to be built on the southern side of what is now called the Pigeon Peas to a Haitian migrant named Arnold. In a matter of a few years a small shanty town appeared as more Haitians began to build without official permission but permission from the property owner whose land bordered the area that came to be known as the Pigeon Peas.
Nearby Pigeon Pea was the Marsh Harbour Primary School, since abandoned, and Abaco’s best softball field. I remember as a child being able to see the small shanty town of Pigeon Pea from the field. At that time it was noticeable, but not large.
On the northwest side of the softball field was an area known as the Mudd. The name came about because that is where the dredge pumped the spoil when it dredged a channel into the harbour of Marsh Harbour in the 1960s.
The land, which is Crown Land, was a low lying swamp and still to this day floods easily, turning the ground into soft mud each time it rains. In the early 1980s one had to wander far along overgrown paths to find a house or two.
Over the next decade the two shanty towns grew tremendously as more family members and others seeking work and a new life in the prosperous island of Abaco made their way across sometimes treacherous waters.
Recognizing the growing problem of shanty towns and illegal immigration in Marsh Harbour a group of people came together to form a group called Abaco Concerned Citizens. This group, and many others who have tried since to deal with the same issue, fell short of their goals in stopping the expansion of these towns due to resistance from central government.
Two decades since the first concerned group of citizens tried to legally put a stop to and control these illegal communities there has been no change except now the problem is bigger and further entrenched. Almost anyone you speak to concerning these shanty towns has no hope that the situation will ever be resolved.
With these shanty towns being built in plain view could it be said that the government agencies are aiding and abetting? Previous to their move to the new government complex in Central Abaco the Department of Immigration was located just a few hundred feet away from arguably the largest shanty town in The Bahamas.
Beyond occasional raids on the communities little else is done to deal with illegal migrants.
Meanwhile tensions rise between locals and the migrants that inhabit these shanty towns. The complaints are numerous and the solutions are wanting as a sense of fear grows that something may ignite the powder keg and create a larger, more contentious situation. Social order erodes as enforcement agencies neglect the issues at hand.
To many the shanty towns have become a blight on the map of Central Abaco. An area that poses a serious health risk to the residents of the shanty town and the surrounding communities alike due to open cesspits and outside toilets in an area that floods easily.
It’s an area that is a hazardous mess of electrical and telephone wires which are strewn from tree to home and run across the tops of roads and paths. The fire potential is realized every few years as poorly constructed wooden structures are built sometimes inches apart; the last major fire saw about 50 homes destroyed.
It’s also home to many illegal activities and has become a haven for both local and foreign criminals. There are reports of underage prostitution, drugs and weapons among other contraband being available in The Mudd.
There are also numerous infractions of the law as immigrants squat on private and government property, build without permits, operate unlicensed businesses and illegally share phones, cable and electricity.
The continued lack of enforcement of numerous laws has led to frustration among Bahamians who say it is unjust to require Bahamians to follow the rule of law while illegal immigrants break the same laws with apparent impunity.
Even now there are numerous homes built in The Mudd by Bahamians who have dared government agencies to stop them and there are some who actually live there while others have built and rented to the residents of the area.
What are the solutions to this unrelenting dilemma? Do we round everyone up and ship them all out? Do we regularize everyone? Do we allow them to buy/build homes legally in low cost areas?
It is impossible to adequately touch on the issues, let alone to address plausible solutions to an intricately complicated problem that has grown over the past four decades.
Now central government says it has plans to deal with the issue of shanty towns and illegal immigrants. Minister of Immigration, Fred Mitchell announced that in one year work permits for common labourers will not be granted.
While it appears a promising solution the question quickly arises as to who will fill all the jobs vacated by such a move? The majority of Bahamians refuse to do common labour and some would even rather be unemployed than to do certain tasks labelled as “Haitian work”.
Whatever the promises are from government, irrespective of political loyalties, the majority of Bahamians have lost faith that those elected will deal with this issue. Meanwhile Mr. Mitchell says the issue of shanty towns is more complex than it seems because these communities have their “protectors throughout the elite class of the country”. The Prime Minister, Perry Christie, also notes that historically governments have lacked the political will to tackle this issue.
The issue of illegal immigration, especially as regards Haitian migrants, is a much layered one. It is impossible to cover adequately all the numerous issues and sub-issues relevant.
The question of who to blame often comes up and to look at the whole picture there are people to blame from regular citizens who are exploiting or making money from transportation and cheap labour, to government officials who may be making extra money on the side to politicians who either lack the will or use the situation for political gain; we all have a part to play in the problem as it is today.
The onus is on us to work together for the right solution. The one thing we must not do is let it continue as is.