By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
PROPOSED immigration reform that seeks to “maintain this country’s nationhood” has left some activists scratching their heads and migrant children panicked over their ability to remain in the country.
The draft Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, 2018 seeks to fill the gaps in the constitution concerning the status of people whose acquisition of citizenship has been deferred under articles 7 and 9, before and after they become eligible to apply.
People in this category are those born in The Bahamas to foreign parents, and those born overseas to married Bahamian women, and the bill provides them a “right to abode”, allowing them to reside and work until they can apply and while their citizenship application is being considered.
It also strips the entitlement of those people to apply for citizenship if they miss the deadline, and provides a six-month window for them to apply for a resident belonger’s permit or face deportation upon passage of the bill.
According to the bill, a resident belonger’s permit will be granted for a period of ten years, and is renewable. However, a permanent residence certificate remains in force for the holder’s lifetime, unless or until it is revoked.
The same goes for the holder of an “economic permanent residence certificate”, under which a holder can apply for and endorse the certificate for a spouse or dependent child.
Any endorsement of a dependent child will be valid until he ceases to be a dependent, the bill states.
Yesterday, The Tribune spoke with several people who were born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents - the largest migrant grouping in the country, but had not yet applied for citizenship. Most people canvassed pointed to financial challenges and lack of access to documents like their parents’ birth records as the main obstacle to submitting an application for citizenship.
Allie, a 21-year-old graduate of CI Gibson who did not want her surname used, said: “I’ve actually been saving since 2016. You have to pay for a birth certificate to come in from Haiti and then get it translated and certified and I have to do both parents so that’s a lot of money.”
Allie does not have a work permit, and braids hair for a living. She said she got a Haitian passport as required by the 2014/2015 policy change, but noted it had little meaning in the country despite being asked by the Bahamas to register for it.
She expressed concern over the government’s agenda concerning the push for Haitian registration, which was echoed by others interviewed by The Tribune yesterday.
“I don’t think that makes much sense,” Allie said, “we were born here, raised here, all you know is here, so you deporting me to somewhere I don’t know about…you sending me to die.”
Notwithstanding disappointment they would no longer be eligible for citizenship because they had missed the deadline, Allie and others said they would still seek other legal status to remain in the country.
“I still consider myself Bahamian,” Allie said, “because I was born here, raised among Bahamians. I don’t see myself not being a Bahamian just because of Haitian descent.”
The new bill mandates the minister give reasons for refusal of citizenship applications and allows for decisions to be appealed at the Supreme Court.
Yesterday, Attorney General Carl Bethel defended the bill as a tool to bring greater certainty and fairness in the handling of nationality cases.
However, critics say the bill is silent on accountability for the government as it relates to the processing of applications - a longstanding issue.
The bill also strengthens the powers of immigration officers, as previously foreshadowed by the government, and proposes to make it legal to arrest or conduct a search without a warrant on reasonable suspicion.
Activist Louby Georges, who heads stakeholder group Flipside Association, said: “This is head scratching for us. There are issues with persons obtaining certain documents - how do you prove certain things to get these documents? It is not impossible but it is out of reach for many people.
“With those changes in 2014 a lot of people became unemployed, and haven’t completed their naturalisation or citizenship processes because they simply don’t have the funds.”
Mr Georges continued: “Honestly I’m not sure what the true agenda or motives can be that is driving this initiative. On paper it looks good, it makes for good conversation on the radio, in the news but a lot of us been discussing it and we think that this is an avenue for the government to simply legalize a lot of the illegal activities that they were conducting - particularly the searches.
“This doesn’t necessarily fix some of the problems that we think exist today,” he said.
“For example, no one is speaking to the turn over time in applying, the length of time it takes to apply, the widespread loss of documents, the efficiency of the department.
“Where is the law or the policy that speaks to the way that the Department of Immigration should conduct their duties? How do we hold you accountable?”
The bill was prepared by the Law Reform and Revision Commission, chaired by Dame Anita Allen, and was released for public consultation last month.
In an internal presentation, Dame Anita applauded the government for initiating the law reform process, which she characterised as “an effort to better protect our borders, to be tougher on violators, and to maintain this country’s nationhood.”
“It cannot be gainsaid that with the incoming tide of illegal immigrants, there are fewer jobs for Bahamians,” Dame Anita said, “communities where they settle are overcrowded and dilapidated; and social and other services are in danger of being overwhelmed.
“Moreover, it is often posited, and not unreasonably so, that we may be in danger of losing our national identity.”
Dame Anita’s presentation was included alongside the bill, and an explanatory memorandum, in a package for stakeholder associations to hold consultations with their members.
In it, she suggests the proposals should not be made public until they have been agreed.
Dame Anita specifically highlighted matters related to the statutory authority of a Supreme Court ruling that found the citizenship of the mother is the chief factor for determining the citizenship of a child born out of wedlock; whether to introduce term limits for work permits; and the removal of gender inequality in the transference of citizenship to an adopted child.
Currently, only a man can pass on his Bahamian citizenship to his adopted child.
She said the existing state of the law “hampers the exercise of immigration control” over people born in the country to foreign parents, whom she said have no reason to leave the country after their birth, with no legal requirement for them to apply for resident status or consequence if they do not apply for citizenship within the constitutionally mandated timeline.
Dame Anita concerned over the “Articles 7 and 9 dilemma”.
The former Court of Appeal president said this dilemma should have been tackled by parliament immediately after Independence, but was left untouched until the 2015 amendment introducing the resident Belonger permit.
While it included the right to work for people in this category, Dame Anita noted it was “ineffectual” because it left the decision to grant such status and its duration up to the discretion of the Immigration Director; and did not indicate whether the application could be made by a minor or adult.
Charlene, 23, told The Tribune she had a Haitian passport but feared for her sister who was unable to apply before their parents’ death due to lack of funds.
Her sister has a daughter, whom she fears will have an even harder time applying for documents to access citizenship.
“First they told us to do the Haitian passport but the Haitian passport don’t mean nothing,” Charlene, who also did not want her surname used, said. “We have Bahamian people who here and ain’t straight, ain’t never had a passport all their life. But they make it hard for us, we been to school over here, the only thing we want over here is a job.
“They was saying if you born over here, you can’t get deported, so they wasn’t putting no pressure to say going to put in something unless they want to travel. But now seeing these laws changing, you gotta panic.”
Daphne, 25, said: “Immigration been in my yard and my heart was beating so fast. I don’t know Haiti, they ask me for my stuff and I show them the Haitian passport and the receipt of my school letter, they told me that still ain’t nothing I still have to prove why I’m over here.
“I told them I’m trying my best. I wasn’t working and I’m trying to save up and they said ok, and that they’ll give me some time. But they told me if they ever see me again they’ll just pick me up.
“Some people don’t check, but I try all my best I could. Some things I put in my head to do, just to make money but I say I’m too young for that, and then I don’t wanna get sick.
“But I just pray, pray, go to church and pray, say God please help me.”
For her part, Dame Anita noted the effectiveness of the bill will rest on the “timely and efficient processing” of citizenship applications.
“Contrary to the view that this reform is a panacea for deporting undocumented immigrants without taking them to court,” Dame Anita said, “I respectfully posit that the exclusion or expulsion from the Bahamas of persons who are not citizens of the Bahamas, must still be done under lawful authority; and the expulsion of any person without fair treatment and due process would be unlawful. The case of Takitota is a case in point.”
The case of Japanese national Atain Takitota, who was unlawfully imprisoned here for eight years between 1992 and 2000, was used to affirm the legal position given in the initial ruling on the landmark Jean Rony Jean-Charles case - which is that detention or arrest with a view to deportation without being taken before a court is not permissible.
In a Facebook comment yesterday, cultural anthropologist and former Bahamas Director General of Culture Dr Nicolette Bethel questioned whether the proposed changes were constitutional, or sensible.
“Because what happens if/when the applications are made? We do not process those which happen now,” she wrote.