By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
SOME 300 applications for citizenship were returned earlier this year due to suspicions that birth certificates were fraudulently issued from the civil registry, Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell revealed yesterday.
All the certificates had to be re-certified, according to Mr Mitchell, who said the incident exposed the importance of utilising biometric data in a modern environment.
He made the revelation as he discussed motivating factors behind the government’s decision to introduce a new immigration policy on a local radio talk show.
“We had earlier this year to turn back about 300 applications for citizenship,” Mr Mitchell said, “because the issue of whether or not the birth certificates were actually properly issued from the registry. There was a suspicion that they were fraudulently issued; we had to turn them all back and have them all re-certified.
“The issue arises this way generally people say because we don’t have any biometrics in our birth certificate. People say I was born in the Bahamas, I was taken to Haiti as a child and I’ve come back now as an adult.”
In instances where there is no biometric data available, Mr Mitchell said that officials normally use independent data such as hospital birth and immunisations records or school transcripts. This method often presents challenges; however, he proposed the problem would be nonexistent if parents applied for a passport for their children.
According to the new restrictions, it will be mandatory for all people living in the Bahamas to have a passport of their nationality as of November 1.
There also will be tighter restrictions for employers applying for first-time work permit holders.
Mr Mitchell’s comments as a guest on “Connected”, a Guardian Radio talk show with Lester Cox, follow criticisms that the new policy was discriminatory towards persons of Haitian descent, and indicative of a xenophobic culture.
Concerns were also raised that the new policy worsened conditions for children born to illegal migrants.
Mr Mitchell said: “We’ve run into a bit of a push back because people say ‘what about the children of the people who are not here lawfully?’ We can’t give a stamp to someone whose parents are not here lawfully so that’s the issue.
“The best we can offer at the moment is that we’re going to amend the visa regulations so that anybody who has this contingent right to apply for citizenship can enter the country again if they wish to do so at the appropriate time,” he said.
Acknowledging that Haitian-Bahamian relations were a “fragile and emotional” situation, Mr Mitchell told listeners that he would not be drawn into a “row” with detractors who aim to play the “victim card”.
He added that he would not be dragged into a “tit-for-tat” with any national group over the matter.
“This is about documentation, this is not about targeting any particular group and as much as people want to drag the argument in that direction,” he said, “they want me to row, to enter into social commentary.
“I may socially agree with many of the things people say, but I’m not the minister of social commentary. I’m the Minister of Immigration and the rules are what the rules are. We have a situation where we have security problems in the Bahamas because of the large number of undocumented non-nationals in the country, we suspect.”
Mr Mitchell pointed to a significant increase in economic migrants around the region, particularly from Haiti and Puerto Rico. He added that the country has also seen a significant increase in migrants from Cuba.
He also acknowledged that the penalty for smugglers was “not very significant” in comparison to the profits associated with the illegal activity.
Mr Mitchell underscored the need for greater reform to allow the department to effectively perform its role.
The department is preparing a manpower assessment plan with a view to tripling the current staffing of 231 officers over the next three years, with consideration to whether a crowd control unit should be established.
He also confirmed that officials met with the tenders board yesterday in a bid to upgrade border patrol technology installed in 2008.
“The question is how much is that going to cost,” he said, “what we’re going to need in terms of equipment.
“Right now for crowd control we depend on the Royal Bahamas Police Force, and it’s not a part of the standard training for an immigration officer. Part of that is largely driven by the experiences we’ve had in some parts of the country, where public officials have to go into various areas and they’ve been turned back by rocks and missiles and those types of things.
He added: “Immigration has a job to do, and that job to do is to ensure that people who are in this country are here lawfully and they work and reside lawfully.”