By MORGAN ADDERLEY
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE opposition’s criticism of amendments to the Immigration Act is a “political red-herring”, Immigration Minister Brent Symonette said yesterday.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a conference held at Baha Mar, Mr Symonette not only defended the bill but also insisted there was consultation on the matter.
However, he admitted there was no consultation with the head of the Bahamas Bar Association (BBA) which has also criticised the amendments.
In a recent statement, the Progressive Liberal Party said the bill “will loosen the controls” the country currently has “to protect the integrity of our borders and our work force”.
In response, Mr Symonette said: “It doesn’t loosen the borders and for someone like [PLP chairman] Fred Mitchell to say that is ridiculous because he was a minister of immigration.
“Immigration officers have a very wide ambit of powers that can deny persons access so that’s a non-starter. That’s a total political red-herring.”
The PLP also said there was “no consultation with affected stakeholders” or the general public — sentiments previously expressed by BBA President Khalil Parker, who condemned the government last month for not consulting with his group.
Regarding consultation, Mr Symonette said: “We consulted a number of persons. I personally went to a number of the top law firms in the Bahamas and discussed this whole issue.
“We dealt with the Association of International Bank and Trust companies, the Bahamas Financial Services Board, all of whom have a number of subsidiary members, the tourism industry was consulted — as a matter of fact [in] a lot of cases these were people driving the amendments and so therefore, yes, there was consultation. Did I speak to [Khalil] Parker as head of the Bar Association? No.”
Mr Symonette went on to defend both parts of the Immigration Bill.
“So the Immigration Bill is being discussed in the Senate today (Monday), of which Mr Mitchell’s put out a press release and saying it’s taking us back, dismantling Bahamianisation.
“There are two aspects of that bill. One is the BH-1B visa which I think you’ve heard us talk about, where it is an attempt to get tech businesses here in The Bahamas, where for instance United States is restricting the number of visas they issue from some 65,000 down to 45,000.
“Those you might have heard me say before are gobbled up in four days of becoming online and so therefore there’s a great need for that industry.”
Mr Symonette noted this “dovetails” into the Commercial Enterprise Act, which gives successful application work permits for up to 14 days and reduces the minimum investment threshold to $250,000.
“‘Does it stop Bahamians?’ Which is one of the issues I think that’s been raised. No because Bahamians are entitled to do that and they are entitled to get the B1-B visa, so it doesn’t prevent Bahamians from going into business and so on and so forth.
“You could argue that we have to find ways, and we do have to find ways, for making it easier for Bahamians to get credit. So any of you know you’re going to the bank, they want too many documents to get a loan.
“So we have to find a way to ease up the ease of getting business. In Switzerland, I’m told it’s like two percent interest, and we’re paying what, seven, eight per cent here so we’ve [got to] find a way to get around that.”
“The second issue of the Immigration Bill which I think you really want to focus on is more of the controversial side of it and again there’s two parts of that,” Mr Symonette continued.
“Fourteen days you can come in…without getting a visa. The average tourist in the Bahamas is here for about 2.9 days. So there’s some issue…that when you fill out the immigration form to come in there’s a section ‘are you visiting for business’.
“Even though you tick yes, the immigration officer has the right to refuse you entry and all you have to do is look at the Immigration Act, it has draconian powers, a lot of people don’t realise it, but the immigration officer at a border has the right to refuse you entry into this country. Full stop.
“So this new policy which we’re enshrining in law is an attempt to make sure discretion is very clear cut, the bill says what you’re coming in for.”
Mr Symonette added persons who attempt to use this visa to “circumvent a work permit” will be caught by immigration officers who will then refuse them entry.
He also referenced the recent World Trade Organisation report from Oxford Economics, which noted The Bahamas cannot continue its current business model.
“Even this morning, Ryan Pinder, former [PLP] minister of financial services said in his speech, we have to expand the way the Bahamas does business. So if we’re going to continue to follow what the PLP is suggesting and keep a very restricted environment on business, the country will not continue to grow.”