By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
FOREIGN Affairs and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell delivered a multi-layered defence of the government’s new immigration policy during his address before the Organisation of American States yesterday, emphasising that this country conducts its business in accordance with the Constitution and international standards.
The special meeting, held in Washington, DC, was scheduled at the request of Mr Mitchell to address what he has called misinformation about the new immigration restrictions. During his address he again denied that the Detention Centre was comparable to a Nazi concentration camp, a claim that was recently raised by local human rights activist Fred Smith.
Amid particular concern about the accommodations given to children of illegal immigrants who are taken during immigration raids, Mr Mitchell noted that on the advice of Prime Minister Perry Christie, a facility outside the Detention Centre has been found to house minors.
“There has been criticism at home and abroad about keeping children in the Detention Centre,” Mr Mitchell said. “The prime minister has instructed that we find a suitable facility for alternative arrangements and the Department of Social Services has spoken to the Catholic Church and the Church of God in the Bahamas with the view to identifying such a facility. I was informed today that plans have been settled for the facility to house children away from the Detention Centre.”
Nothing is more important to the Bahamas than its reputation in the international arena, Mr Mitchell said, adding: “Reputation is everything. The respect which we have around the world depends upon our reputation. I am here today to reaffirm our commitment to the principles of the rule of law, due process, the international treaties on migration and all the instruments to which we adhere in the Inter-American system. Please be assured of that. This assurance goes out to friend and foe alike and has become necessary because of the misinformation that has been circulated by two innocuous administrative measures that were announced by the Bahamas, which took effect on November 1, 2014.”
Mr Mitchell told the OAS that the government’s policy and actions relating to immigration should not be surprising to anyone given that the Progressive Liberal Party announced the plans during the lead-up to the last general election. He said government officials also told the Haitian government about its intentions during a visit by officials to Haiti on July 28.
“The Constitution of our country empowers officers to arrest people who are committing offences on the following standard: a reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed, is being committed or is about to be committed,” he said. “Officers are briefed on that standard and reminded of their responsibility in law to treat everyone with respect and with dignity and to afford everyone due process. So far as I am aware they have stuck to that standard. The government does not sanction any deviation from that standard.”
Mr Mitchell invited the International Human Rights Commission and the OAS to come to this country and inspect immigration procedures and facilities to verify his statements.
“We are open and transparent and have absolutely nothing to hide,” he said.
In September, Mr Mitchell announced the changes that came into effect in November. The restrictions mandate that first time work permit applicants from Haiti must be processed in that country before the permit is issued.
The policy also requires all persons living in the Bahamas to have a passport of their nationality. The government has stopped issuing certificates of identity but those with a constitutional right to apply for citizenship will get a special residency stamp.
Mr Mitchell said the new work permit policy was established to combat the impression that immigrants need only find a “friendly employer” to get a work permit once they come to the Bahamas. “This was driving illegal migration,” he said. “ The policy is intended to put a stop to it.”
As for passport and residency permit requirements, he said: “The Constitution of the Bahamas from 1973 does not grant citizenship to people born in the Bahamas at birth unless your parents are Bahamian. Unfortunately for many, they chose not at birth to get the passport of their nationality or a residency stamp and live in a kind of no man’s land until they reach their 18th birthday. It is at that time that the constitution says that you can apply for citizenship of the Bahamas, but before your 19th birthday.”