By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
THE birth rate of immigrants living in The Bahamas is just one phenomenon driving the current overhaul of immigration laws, according to Minister of Immigration Brent Symonette, who suggested the potential number of people entitled to apply for citizenship stood to eclipse the current population.
Mr Symonette stressed the country’s immigration problem was bigger than the outcry over the undocumented status of children born to migrants as he foreshadowed critical debate on nationality laws by year’s end.
Proposed amendments to immigration laws are currently before retired Justice Anita Allen, he said.
Far-reaching changes could impact the way citizenship is accessed by people born in the country to foreign nationals; introduce the use of biometrics for birth records; establish limits on work permits; criminalise immigration fraud; or see the policy mandating everyone in the country to obtain a nationality document enshrined in law.
Mr Symonette spoke to The Tribune on present challenges following criticism levelled by US congresswoman Frederica Wilson last week.
It also follows upset stirred by Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis’ recent comments in the wake of an earthquake in Haiti.
“When the prime minister makes comments…it’s a serious issue,” he said.
Mr Symonette added: “Check how many were in the census and then realise how many work permits. Some 24,000 applications come into this building a year and the large majority of them come from one country. I’m not trying to be prejudiced, but I’m trying to sensitise people to that. Let’s say there are 150,000 files out there. One file is at least one person, and some of them have three kids.
“Say three times 100,000,” he continued, “now you see the problem. Sometimes you may think I’m insensitive or whatever but the reality is we only have 21 miles by seven (in New Providence).”
People born in the Bahamas to non-nationals are entitled to apply for citizenship between 18 and 19-years-old. Individuals can still apply for consideration after missing this window, Mr Symonette advised, but there is no constitutional entitlement.
He lamented this feature was particularly desirous to migrant parents, some of whom resist registering their children in their home country to ensure their path to Bahamian citizenship is unfettered.
“My mother was born here, hypothetically . . . she has three kids, they have three kids, they have three kids, so that’s up to about 30 kids all deriving citizenship off that one person,” he said, providing an example. “Now in the financial services industry for instance, they (expatriates) will come for three or four or five years and then leave. But there are a lot of them that have been here for 20 years.
“So maybe the question of citizenship shouldn’t arise, maybe permanent residency.”
In his 2018/2019 budget speech, Mr Symonette stated 3,032 permits were approved from July 2017 to May.
Highlighting numbers of some of the categories, he said permanent residency approvals were granted to 2,481 people: 1,012 residency spousal permits were granted and 9,095 work visas were granted.
During that period, work visas were approved for 417 Canadians, 199 Brazilians, 128 Swiss people, 149 Colombians, 105 Cubans, 258 Dominicans, 5,064 Haitians, 1,013 Americans, 191 Guyanese, 107 French and 360 English. He said 515 visas have been approved for Chinese nationals, although this number does not include those who work at The Pointe or Baha Mar.
“This is a bigger question than just some lady who’s unfortunately sick trying to go to Miami,” he said, “and a congresswoman who’s trying to win an election.”
Mr Symonette was referring to The Tribune’s coverage of sick teen Taranique Thurston, who is currently receiving medical treatment in Florida on an emergency visa obtained with assistance from Fredericka Wilson, a South Florida representative. The teen, born in the Bahamas to a naturalized Bahamian mother, does not hold a passport, but was granted a certificate of identity in August that lists her as a Haitian national.
The present ambiguity in law is exacerbated by irregular migration, according to Mr Symonette, who insisted the country would soon have to reconcile whether children born to migrants in the country illegally should be considered for citizenship.
Speaking generally, Mr Symonette continued: “If you’re here illegally and you have a child here, does that make the child legal? If the child is born here to illegal parents and we deport the parents, do we leave the child here? These are all issues. We have to have this discussion, these are the things a lot of people don’t talk about, and they don’t want to talk about it.
“Another issue we have to discuss publicly, is do we allow the spouse of the work permit holder to be in the country?
“Do you allow the child or do we just say ‘no, you can come in but you have to stay out.’ Those are issues we have to look at. If I bring the head of BPL in, are we discriminating against one over the other? So these are the issues, it has to be a very big discussion. It affects so many people.”
“The 27 (people) I swore in (last Thursday) have the right to vote tomorrow,” Mr Symonette said, “they go straight from here to the Passport Office. But their view on this immigration policy probably might be different than yours and mine because they had to go through the hassle of getting the permit. It would be interesting to know what their position is. Because if they had children before, they are going to want those children to be ok - which is only natural, you want your world to be sorted out.”
As of May 3, 2010, there were 351,461 people resident in The Bahamas.
Residents, as defined by the 2010 report included all people regardless of their legal status, who had been living in the country for a period of six months prior to the census.
Of that figure, 17.3 percent (or 60,802) were citizens of another country and the largest group - some 39,156 people - were Haitian citizens.
Mr Symonette told The Tribune he hoped to begin town hall meetings by the end of the year.