ATTORNEY General Carl Bethel yesterday slammed members of the Official Opposition for their position on the divisive amendments to the Immigration Act, accusing them of seeking to block all meaningful progress by the government.
Mr Bethel’s comments came during Senate’s debate of the amendments.
He said the Progressive Liberal Party has adopted an extremely negative approach “crudely designed” to foster racial divisions, and to generate fear and mistrust of the government in the minds of the public.
According to Mr Bethel, leader of government business in the Senate, the acts have been “nothing short of crude race baiting and fear-mongering,” referring specifically to the PLP’s intentional association of amendments with Immigration Minister Brent Symonette and his involvement.
The PLP has argued the bill would mark the end of the “Bahamianisation” policy.
The party has also said the amendments “will loosen the controls that we presently have to protect the integrity of our borders and our workforce.”
The Immigration (Amendment) Bill 2019, which was passed in the House last month, will create two new visas. The BH-1B work visa would grant a work visa biometric card to anyone who has permission to engage in gainful occupation in the country that has a specified commercial enterprise certificate under the Commercial Enterprises Act.
The BH-4S permit would allow the spouse or dependent child of a BH-1B work visa holder to reside in the country and enrol in educational institutions during the duration of the permit. The bill also allows for exemptions for short-term visas.
Taking direct aim at the PLP’s current position, Mr Bethel said without a major shift in the practical implementation of immigration policies and a major lessening of restrictive practices, The Bahamas could risk losing thousands of jobs in the financial services sector.
He said the loss of these jobs would decimate the country’s entire middle class and force Bahamians into further unemployment, suffering and loss.
“It is no longer a world of the survival of the fittest: it’s all about survival of the slickest,” he said. “Those who adapt fastest and effectively to the changes which have been imposed on offshore centres by the world’s powerhouse countries, will have a chance to survive the onslaught.
“I have often said to the sector and now I say to every Bahamian that well enough is no longer good enough. We must change, we must’ve adapt to forced changes, and we have to be smarter than those who would seek to harm us,” he added.
“We would be fools to change the whole basis upon which business is transacted in the offshore sector, and expect that things would remain the same with no changes to some domestic policies,” he said.
“But if we leave the old and restrictive work permit regime in place it is clear, to tall and short, that there would be a massive flight of business from the Bahamas.
“Such an exodus of offshore business would further decimate Bahamian employment in formerly offshore banks and trust companies.
“Such an exodus of business, which is in fact the unvarnished truth of the goals of the OECD and the EU, would have a devastating effect on the banking sector and hundreds if not thousands of good paying, even high paying jobs for hundreds and even thousands of Bahamian professionals in the financial sector,” he added.
Meanwhile, PLP Senator Jobeth Coleby-Davis asserted that the amendments, as proposed, indiscriminately equips foreign companies with the means to fully staff their local operations with foreign workers, at the expense of qualified Bahamians.
Mrs Coleby-Davis said the amendments would allow companies to bring in their entire executive team, and then receive work visas within 14 days, and the argument in support is Bahamians will learn skills.
She asked: “Who will monitor that skills are actually being passed down? Who will keep a record of the amount of Bahamians excelling in these businesses?
“Actually, who is keeping a record on the present benefits received since the passing of the Commercial Enterprises Act?
“Did we have an influx of companies, are thousands of Bahamians getting jobs with these companies?
“How many businesses signed on and opened in the Bahamas since coming into force?
“How many executive positions does Bahamians hold in these companies?
“How many work visas permits have been granted following the coming into force of that legislation?
“On a scale of 1-10, 1 being nothing, how much financial gain has the country received from the passing of the Commercial Enterprise Act?”
Mrs Coleby-Davis speculated that the amendments could open the “flood gates” and allow for several sectors of Bahamian professional to be overran by foreigners.
“Anyone can now land and say, here for a business meeting with this particular company, no need to show proof of meeting, no prior communication required from the company to advise of entry. How are we going to protect our borders?
“We saw just two weeks ago that one of the principles in the marina project [in Harbour Island} has a previous conviction of drug possession, prior to that we had principles of Oban with previous fraudulent convictions… this FNM government has had some issues since coming to power with properly vetting the foreign investors, it seems like they just jumping on any band wagon to say they have movement in the economy,” she added.
For his part, Senator Ranard Henfield called for several slight changes to the amendments, citing that the Senate is mandated to what’s needed to ensure the government “gets it right.”
Mr Henfield said while he has no issue with the issuance of the new BH-1B and BH-4S visas, the complete amendments do present glitches that allows foreign skilled workers to abuse the system by taking on gainful employment without the adequate visa or immigration status.
He implored his Senate colleagues to include a provision that notes that persons receiving the access provision be barred from gainful employment; reduce the amount of access days from 14 to three business days and expressly state that the access provision can only be utilised twice per year.