By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
CHILDREN picked up in a raid by Immigration officers on the first day of the Government’s new policy slept cold and hungry on the floor of the overcrowded Carmichael Road Detention Centre, according to one parent.
The Tribune interviewed Maria Cenatus, mother of the two-year-old boy whose photo of him being carried away in a soiled diaper by an immigration officer sparked international concern over the government’s new immigration policy.
Ms Cenatus is one of two families who spoke to The Tribune about the traumatic ordeal that allegedly left them separated from their children for several days.
Their stories follow a recent announcement from Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell that the government was considering the use of a separate facility to house detainees with children, adding that the current provision is to prioritise their deportation.
At that time, Mr Mitchell maintained that there have been no reports of abuse concerning the conduct of immigration officers and congratulated officers on their professionalism.
“It’s your children,” Ms Cenatus said during an interview at her home. “You can’t sleep, just crying, just thinking what they’re doing. These officers are so spiteful these days so if the child doing something they don’t care, they having hatred against these children because they saying that these are Haitian children and they don’t want them over here, so they just trying to ship everyone out and they ain’t worrying about them.
“It was a reality shock because it’s never happened like this, in years,” she said. “You grow up hearing your parents speak about it from years ago, my mommy used to say that’s how it used to be back in the day when immigration used to raid, but now it just happening all over again. I don’t know.”
Immigration officers conducted a raid in the East Street area around 11am on November 1. Ms Cenatus, a 23-year-old hair stylist, said she had gone to work on a client when she got a call to inform her that immigration officers had taken her children.
Five-year-old Jermique and two-year-old Jayden Ferguson were in the care of Ms Cenatus’ house mate Merita, who was arrested with three of her four children and later deported.
Merita has lived in the Bahamas for some 14 years, according to Ms Cenatus, but did not have legal documents to reside in the country. She explained that Merita’s fourth child was on a field trip, and now lives with his father’s parents because his mother and siblings were deported to Haiti four days after their arrest.
Ms Cenatus and her two children were born in the Bahamas, but do not have passports, she said. The young mother said her application for Bahamian citizenship was submitted earlier this year, after she struggled for years to obtain and translate documents on her deceased Haitian parents.
She explained that she presented birth certificates for herself and her children when they were finally released, nearly three days after their arrest.
“I went by the Detention Centre to try and get the kids (on November 1),” she said, “but they (officials) told me that they could not release them until Monday when the person who could release them came.
“I asked them also if I could leave some clothes for them to put on because when they took them they didn’t have anything on. They told me no they’re not accepting nothing for the kids, no clothes, no sheets, no pampers nothing. I went back on Sunday and they said the same thing, they didn’t take anything for the kids and it was cold that weekend, very cold.”
On Sunday following the November 1 raid, immigration officials confirmed that there were 496 people in the Detention Centre.
“(Children) were saying up there was cold, the floor cold,” the mother said. “When I ask what they were eating up there, they said (officers) just gave them grits and tuna nothing else. Then, they went outside and run up and down you know how little children go.
“When the immigration (officers) carry them up there, they didn’t change Jayden’s pampers for a long time, my daughter said. She said they didn’t eat much all day, she told me they just ate tuna and grits. She still remembers it.”
While the youngest toddler does not speak about the ordeal, Ms Cenatus said her 5-year-old daughter often questions why she and her friends were taken, why her friends did not come back, and whether or not she would also be taken again.
Jermique stood teary-eyed next to her mother as Ms Cenatus recounted this part of the child’s experience.
“She is be asking for the children that went with the lady (Merita),” Ms Cenatus said. “Asking if they coming back, she asks why immigration carried them, why immigration been here. They (children) wasn’t saying nothing much, they just ask why is immigration doing this.”
The controversial photo of Jayden in the arms of an immigration officer, wearing only a yellow and blue jersey, soiled diaper, and one tennis shoe, went viral moments after it was posted on social media. The footage was later broadcast by television news stations.
The government has maintained that several children picked up over the November 1 weekend had been abandoned by their guardians, some who had left the minors in the home with a stove on.
Jimmy, a 36-year-old Haitian mason, admitted to The Tribune that he ran away and left his 7-year-old daughter Jayda and 9-year-old nephew John Marco inside a house when he saw officers approaching because his work permit had expired a month earlier.
Jimmy’s last name has been withheld at his request.
“When I saw them, I ran through the back window,” he said. “I told them (the children) that immigration was out there so don’t open this door.
“When I left, they went into the yard and knock on the door. No one answered but they knew somebody was inside so then they kick the door down and went in. When they don’t see no parent, they took the children and gone.”
Jimmy said he was born in Haiti, but has lived in the Bahamas for the past 19 years and has had 12 consecutive work permits.
His father went to collect the children from the Detention Centre on November 1; however, the children were instead released into the care of Social Services, he said.
Jayda’s 38-year-old mother said the children were held in the care of the state for three days before she was able to take them home.
“When I reach, I find her (Jayda) crying by the woman (caregiver’s) house (on November 1),” she said. “She’s crying, she say she miss me, I cried too, I cried plenty. Nothing is right, it’s not right for the children, they were born here.”
Jayda’s mother said she has a Haitian passport and has lived in the Bahamas since 2005, adding that her permit application was still being processed.
Jimmy added: “They (officials) always do it, you can’t stop that. So I don’t really know if there is anything to say about this.”
The new immigration policy that mandates that everyone living in the Bahamas must have a passport of their nationality was announced in the House of Assembly on September 17.
Certificates of identity issued to people born to foreign parents legally residing in the Bahamas will not be renewed; instead a passport of their nationality with a resident stamp is required.
Last night, Mr Mitchell declined to comment on the allegations.
Human rights groups that have expressed concerns over the new immigration policy include Amnesty International, Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights, and the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association. Daphne Campbell, a Democrat in the Florida House of Representatives, called for tourists and international businesses to boycott the country over a policy she says discriminates against Haitian children.