By ADRIAN GIBSON
Illegal immigration is an emotive issue in this country and for far too long we have struggled with it, we have not found a way to effectively address it. This week Haitian president Michel Martelly - and his seemingly injudicious comments - has caused quite a stir. Whilst I understand what the Haitian president is trying to say relative to conditions on the ground in Haiti, I think that his comments could be seen as an attempt at giving a backhanded ultimatum to a sovereign nation and, quite frankly, amounts to a shifting of responsibility.
Diplomacy should never be used to create what many Bahamians see as a diplomatic hostage situation of sorts - where Haiti says to ‘do this and that or face the likelihood of more illegal immigrants flooding your shores!’
I like President Martelly. I followed his campaign and was pleased to see that he was elected as I always got the impression that he meant the Haitian people well. To use an example I’ve seen on a popular Facebook page, Martelly’s comments are comparable to a property owner having fruit trees and, in order to discourage a “joneser” from coming into your yard and raiding your trees (stealing), you pick the fruits off the trees yourself and give them to the “joneser.”
I’ve also heard angry Bahamians assert that maybe the Bahamas could have invested more into Haiti if so much money did not have to be spent repatriating illegal Haitian migrants. Over the course of the last week, I have seen and heard Bahamians - from all sectors of society - making statements about Martelly’s remarks, most of their opinions being condemnatory.
Look, we all understand that the best way to reduce/stop illegal immigration is to create economic opportunities. What Mr Martelly should have said to Bahamians - in a more gingerly, tactful manner - is that there are opportunities that Bahamian investors can exploit in Haiti, considering its sheer size and a population of more than 10 million.
What he should have done was to offer incentives for persons/companies looking to invest in Haiti and to invite persons to do so, without coming across as if he was giving Bahamians an ultimatum which many Bahamians have interpreted to mean - invest or be overrun by fleeing Haitian migrants!
The reality is that Haitians who live in the Bahamas repatriate hard currency to their homeland on a daily basis. Undoubtedly, Western Union’s (and to a lesser extent other financial institutions) transactions have become a critical part of the Haitian economy, being largely responsible for much of their foreign exchange. I am not convinced that President Martelly and his political cohorts are at all interested in having many of those within the Haitian diaspora - living and working in the Bahamas - returning and cutting off that economic valve. I highly doubt that they are remotely interested in such persons returning and becoming wards of the state.
I have a friend who teaches at Abaco Central High School and she tells me that the ratio of students of Haitian parentage/heritage to those of Bahamian parentage is nine to one. I was speechless. Those numbers are simply staggering!
And so, what must we do to combat illegal Haitian migration? What must we do about regularising young men and women - born of Haitian parentage - and officially embracing them as a part of the only society that they know?
I think its high-time that we - as a people - convene a closed ended working session to address the Haitian problem, incorporating all stakeholders and, ultimately, producing a white paper on immigration, which would be inclusive of the terms for the regularisation of persons who are entitled to citizenship or permanent residency as well as the addressing the repatriation of those who do not qualify.
Indeed, there is a pressing need for an overhaul of our immigration laws whilst biting the bullet and granting legal status to the children of immigrants. It appears that we have no other choice but to face reality and address the regularisation and incorporation of qualifying persons into our society.
As it stands, as Bahamians, we have to join hands and bring about a more focused immigration strategy as opposed to fretfully pondering the political risks of possibly offending an emerging, purportedly independent “new generation” of voters (offspring of migrants) and satisfying the anti-illegal immigrant stance of traditional Bahamian voters.
I supported Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell’s attempts at making the Department of Immigration more proactive, with spot/road checks and so on. I think he meant well. Whilst I believe that some aspects of it could have been more orderly and gone smoother - and whilst some of the criticisms of the tactics of officers were warranted - the exercise sought to enforce our immigration laws by putting boots on the ground, in so-called hotspots and by maintaining a presence.
Yes, there will always be rogue officers who take advantage of the fact that they wear a uniform and those bad apples seemingly ruin many initiatives. Frankly, the immigration policies of the Bahamas can be better enunciated and Bahamians all know that the department - from time immemorial - has seemingly adopted a more reactive than proactive approach, diverting much of its resources to apprehension and repatriation exercises.
Immigration enforcement is imperative!
Illegal immigration is far more complex than mere round-ups and repatriations. In this country, immigration is an emotive and divisive issue that leaves many Bahamians hyper-ventilating and demanding waves of apprehensions and deportations.
Over the years, the approach to immigration has manifestly failed. That said, the country’s human capital is lagging and we therefore must not adopt an anti-immigrant outlook in today’s increasingly globalised society.
The Department of Immigration must allot resources to properly educating foreigners on legal ways to access this country, particularly those whose frequent attempts at repeated illegal re-entry make repatriation efforts seem a futile endeavour. We must become conscious of the complexities of illegal immigration and cease our one-dimensional approach to immigration.
Moreover, the Department of Labour should conduct an inventory (year over year) of the country’s labour needs, granting work permits to incorporate immigrants into a labour system where there are shortages or a lack of local expertise. Quite honestly, a scientific approach should be taken to gauge the number of immigrants, particularly as Haitians are hardly the only foreign nationals unlawfully violating our sovereign space. And it can assist with policy formation.
Currently, there are more immigrants - many illegal - on Abaco than native Bahamians. I’m also informed that in areas such as Rock Crusher (New Providence), the majority of residences are occupied by Haitians, rented to them by unscrupulous Bahamians who charge ridiculous rates, contingent upon a head count. Pockets of Carmichael, Joe Farrington Road, Over-the-Hill and Cowpen Road remain hotbeds for illegal immigrants.
Some time ago, I read a New York Times report that spoke about then changes to Arizona state’s immigration laws, saying that the law “called for (police) officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws and that required immigrants to carry their papers at all times.”
I support the notion of a greater and closer co-ordination between the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, Immigration officers and the Royal Bahamas Police Force in the fight against illegal immigration. Locally, imposing new requirements on police officers related to the enforcement of our immigration laws is an aspect of the Arizona law worth adopting.
A few years ago, when I travelled to Europe, my hosts advised that I constantly travel with my passport as it is a practice - in places such as France, Holland and Germany, etc - for police to request identification and documentation on highways, trains and buses.
In November 2006, former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said that immigration raids almost exclusively target poor black neighbourhoods, while wealthy individuals who “pay to play” are not required to have their immigration applications scrutinised. Indeed, whilst Haitians constitute the largest bloc of illegal and legal immigrants, there are certain classes of immigrants (usually white collar workers) - Americans, Chinese, Canadians, Europeans - who get a free pass.
The then Prime Minister also promised to revisit the Immigration Act and its accompanying regulations while proposing amendments to foster transparency relative to various aspects of the processes at the Department of Immigration.
Immigration - particularly the influx of illegal Haitian immigrants - has been a strain on our social systems and public resources. From the 18th century to the mid-20th century, the interaction between Haitians and Bahamians was mostly by trade. Based upon statistics presented in an academic paper by Patricia Dorsette, the steady stream of Haitian migrants began in 1948.
Over time, Haitians have become itinerant travellers whose powerful ambition to escape their bleak circumstances has become a burden on their neighbours. The global economic downturn and recent tragic earthquake has made the economic prospects for Haitians seem even gloomier.
Following the catastrophic earthquake in Port-au-Prince, former PM Ingraham decided to temporarily grant status (for six months) to the Haitian migrants housed at the Detention Centre. At that time, Mr Ingraham’s decision to release the Haitians – even with temporary status – was met with a chorus of dissent and questions about its legality as local radio talk shows were bombarded by livid callers.
Indeed, outright disbelief and cynicism was expressed in some quarters about Mr Ingraham’s decision. As I was told in the barber’s shop recently, today some Bahamians are still wondering about the whereabouts of some of those immigrants who were released from the detention centre under the premise of a compassionate amnesty.
Over the last century or so, Haiti has been overwhelmed by abject and systemic poverty, desolation, a wretched economy and unsavoury regimes. Frankly, that nation’s history has been marked by violence and turmoil. After a dishevelled band of rebels defeated Napoleon’s army and became the first nation established by slaves, the French contributed to Haiti’s underdevelopment by demanding a large, unjust indemnity for the loss of slaves.
A few years ago, Haiti was on the brink of anarchy, falling deeper into the abyss of impoverishment that many have tried so desperately to avoid. Admittedly, since President Martelly was elected, there appears to be a greater sense of stability.
Bahamians are apprehensive about an invasion of Haitians, as there is little doubt among the general populace that rickety sloops - with countless Haitians wedged in their bellies in scenes reminiscent of the slave trade - are doggedly making the trek to the Bahamas from this ravaged land.
In the Bahamas, the crux of the matter regarding undocumented Haitians is the numbers, particularly as the inner city and some family island settlements are swollen with migrants - many of whom are here illegally. Today, they comprise a sizeable percentage of the work force, working many low-end jobs that Bahamians reject and/or working for lower wages (construction, agriculture, cooks, house cleaners/maids, yard work etc).
Indeed, the government must enforce the law and revoke the business licences of persons hiring all illegal immigrants, threatening them with a prison sentence and, in the case of repeat offenders, seizing businesses. Traffickers of illegal migrants must be charged with treason while the migrants themselves should be charged with misdemeanours or felonies, depending upon the specifics of their offences which can vary from illegal entry charges to much more. Moreover, heavy fines should be levied against landlords who rent to and harbour these individuals.
The Department of Immigration must begin conducting “silent raids”, reviewing the files of businesses suspected of hiring illegal immigrant workers and conducting worksite round-ups. Immigration officers can start at almost any construction site! According to the New York Times, even the Obama administration was employing an initiative that involved “silent raids”, forcing “businesses to fire every suspected illegal immigrant on payroll.” What’s more, a more comprehensive vetting and investigation process should be undertaken when granting and renewing work permits.
In addition to a country-wide immigration dragnet, cracking down on human smuggling and intensifying immigration enforcement at all likely entrance points into the Bahamas - from Inagua to Abaco to Lyford Cay etc - is of the essence. Continuous Defence Force patrols should be carried out throughout the archipelago and around the entire perimeter of New Providence - the Bahamas’ main illegal immigrant hotspot.
Because the Bahamas has an extensive, porous border - particularly to the south - the government should seek to purchase (or pursue donations of) unmanned surveillance drones and helicopters to police the border (the helicopter/s can also be utilised for police pursuits). Moreover, road blocks and random boarding and inspections of passengers on-board jitneys should be undertaken by Immigration officers in their pursuit of undocumented immigrants.
Why does the Defence Force not have a sub-office or mini-base at South Beach? Isn’t that the landing area for many of the vessels carrying illegal immigrants? It is simply a matter of using common sense and stationing adequate resources at such a place.
Coming soon - a very personal burden shared
This week I had begun to take a look at sexual offences and instances of molestation and child abuse that has been so silently widespread in the Bahamas. It was my intent to look at it through the spectrum of an actual victim; however, he does not feel ready to share his story with the public and has asked for more time.
As he currently resides in the United States we will continue to talk and when he’s ready, that story will be shared with Young Man’s View readers with the hope of - to use his words - “taking a burden off of (him) and helping others who are silently dying inside.”