IT SEEMS ironic that almost 40 years later Sir Roland Symonette’s son, Immigration Minister Brent Symonette, should be one of those faced with the “Haitian problem” and the need to amend the law to control the growing crisis.
Obviously, Sir Roland could not have foreseen the mammoth problem that the need for Haitian labour had become, but even then he realised that if the influx were not controlled from Haiti — even before they arrived on Bahamian soil — The Bahamas would have a problem that it would not be able to manage. He suggested that a department be established in Haiti that would control and screen all persons wishing to enter The Bahamas for employment.
Sir Roland, The Bahamas’ first premier in a self-governing former colony, was an Opposition member during the Pindling administration long enough to see the consequences of Sir Lynden’s promise to Bahamians that no longer would they be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Many years towards the end of his administration Sir Lynden admitted that he had given the youth the wrong advice. Over the years, he said, he had discovered that hard work built character. As a result of this breakdown, Bahamians refused to do certain work, haughtily dismissing it as “Haitian work”. They themselves opened the floodgates to a problem of their own making.
Government is now grappling with the consequences of a people who came here over the years and because of their numbers are now a major social problem. However, it is our problem and in attempting to solve it we must remember that we are dealing with fellow human beings who have the same hopes and dreams that we have. It is a problem that has gone unregulated for far too long. However, whatever amendments have to be made — or even if a new immigration law has to be written — it must be done fairly and with compassion.
Haitians have always been a part of our society. They are an intelligent people, especially when given a chance. One of the many complaints of many Bahamians today is that not only are there too many Haitians in our schools, but they are showing our Bahamians up by coming top of their classes, and walking away with the prizes. One would have thought that this would have been enough incentive to encourage our Bahamian children to pull up their socks and get down to their studies. They only defeat themselves and remain on the unemployable D-list when they fail to make the extra effort. Removing a student, who excels because of hard work, is not going to help the shirker.
In 1834, the first black man to be elected to The Bahamas House of Assembly was Stephen Dillet, not a Bahamian, but a Haitian by birth. His mother was an African, his father a French Army Officer. The Bahamas became his home and he was fully accepted by all levels of society.
Over the years, Haitians settled in The Bahamas, fully participated in the island’s activities, were embraced by other Bahamians – all, at one time or another, themselves immigrants – and were solidly woven into The Bahamas’ human fabric. In those days, no one questioned their identity or their right to be here.
However, with the influx of the labouring class Haitian to fill the gaps of Bahamians unwilling to lift the machete, the change in many better educated Haitians whose tendrils once clung to Mother Haiti and who had settled comfortably into Bahamian society, became terrified to share their “shameful secret” — they too were Haitians, but this time they hid their true identity in the closet.
On a radio talk show in 2006, a Bahamian, who described himself as a “small farmer” with more than 200 acres of land, had a serious complaint against then Immigration Minister Shane Gibson. He needed 500 Haitians for his farm, he said. He did not think that Haitians with jobs should be sent back to Haiti. He believed that those with jobs – legal or illegal— should be regularised and only the jobless should be returned to Haiti.
“When Sir Lynden was prime minister,” he told the radio audience, “no Minister could do what Shane Gibson is doing now.” He said when then deputy prime minister Arthur Hanna who had Immigration in his portfolio and later when the late Sir Clement Maynard headed Immigration, he was given whatever work permits he needed for his Haitians. Those were peaceful days, he said.
However, there were side rackets going on in human flesh. We had heard whispers. Testing those whispers we called a friend in the Immigration Department at that time to enquire how we could get permission to employ a Haitian for the farm. We couldn’t, we were frankly told, because of who we were. The only way we could do it would be to go to a certain person in Fox Hill, who had a farm — later we discovered that she didn’t have a farm. It was said that she would have a Haitian with a permit who we could employ. This meant that every week she collected a part of “her” Haitian’s salary.
On another occasion there was a report of an older gentleman who had accidentally driven off Potter’s Cay dock one night and drowned. We knew this man well. He spent much of his nights driving around collecting his “portion” of the salaries of “his” Haitians, whose work permits he held.
Now is the opportunity to amend our immigration laws, taking immigration completely out of the hands of politicians, and treating these misused people fairly — some should not be here, while others have every right to be here.