Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fred Mitchell on What it means to be Bahamian... ...Bahamian identity ...and the public policy carried out by the Department of Immigration

Urgent Reform Needed For Immigration Crisis

EVER since I read the Sir Lynden O. Pindling Distinguished Lecture of 2003 by then Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Public Service Fred Mitchell – “What it means to be Bahamian” – I have wanted to confront Mr Mitchell on the remarkable inconsistency between what he articulated as his personal views on Bahamian identity and the public policy carried out by the Department of Immigration.
In his presentation, Mr Mitchell refreshingly articulated what in Bahamian terms would be considered very liberal views on immigration and what I consider a conscious opinion on Bahamian identity. And yet, the policy of the Government of the Bahamas, regardless of its political administration, has never lived up to such an ideal.
In fact, public policy has shown blatant indifference towards the human cost of the immigration crisis and the flawed process that many have had to endure.
Speaking at an immigration forum hosted by the Bahamas National Youth Council (BNYC) in collaboration with The College of the Bahamas’ School of Social Sciences and the School of Communication and Creative Arts, a Bahamian man described his 30-year battle to claim citizenship for his daughter.
She is a woman in her 30s with three children and the Department of Immigration has yet to fully process her application. Her mother is a Jamaican and she was born to her parents out of wedlock. To some misguided Bahamians that is a national shame. An immigration officer told the Bahamian man after he complained about his daughter’s documents being lost for the umpteenth time over the past 30 years that he should not have been with a Jamaican woman.
The Bahamian man rattled off the names of practically every minister responsible for immigration since independence, claiming no reprieve under any of them. He flew from Grand Bahama specifically for the forum and an opportunity to plead his case with the current minister in a public setting.
Can we as Bahamians stop to think, just for a moment, to empathise with someone like this Bahamian man? For more than 30 years he has had to suffer the inconvenience of the process and the indignity of not being able to call his own daughter, who was born and raised on native soil, a Bahamian.
And now, his three grandchildren have to endure further dishonour.
Yes, they are eligible to apply for Jamaican citizenship by virtue of their mother’s ancestry, so they are not stateless, but the Bahamas is their home and they have every right to want their country to formally recognize them as one of their own. They should not have to wait 30 years, and endure the stink attitude of an immigration officer to do so.
Why is it that instead of being shamed into action over this man’s 30 year battle, an immigration officer would offer him such a presumptuous and disrespectful comment like the one made? What kind of environment have we fostered to allow such an attitude to be considered acceptable?
Immigration consultants paint an extremely disheartening picture of the conduct of some civil servants at immigration, claiming a “culture of slackness, prejudice and a general don’t care attitude” is pervasive.
“There is a woman who doesn’t deal with anyone who is not upper class. If you are not white and don’t have no money, she is not making an appointment for you, off the bat,” said an immigration consultant.
Applicants from non-Commonwealth countries, “(immigration officers) don’t feel obligated to them”. The law does not say to treat them differently; “but the people, they feel a certain bias and they would not push it”.
“Sometimes they will carry a person through the ropes when they don’t need it. A lot of Haitians don’t know their fathers. Immigration knows that, but because they know it will cause them a while to get that information, they say hey, let’s send them for that stuff,” said the consultant.
Applicants must respond in 90 days to certain requests, such as notifications for an interview with an immigration officer. One applicant claimed the letters are deliberately sent out at the last minute, so applicants miss the 90-day time period, thereby delaying the process even further. If a single item is missing from an application, such as a photo or police record, that application might sit lingering, because no one is willing to make a simple call. “They are going to write a letter knowing that the postal service takes forever.”
Amongst the workers, there is allegedly a general distrust of certain governments, such as Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. “We know their governments are willing to help them get in another country,” said an immigration officer. On the other hand, it is believed that other countries “wouldn’t lie”, or that “they don’t like to give up their citizens”, so they are trusted more.
“If a Jamaican student wants to apply, Jamaica will mean to take three, four months just to hold them up, because Jamaica doesn’t like to give up their citizens,” the civil servant said. The distrust is compounded by the illegal trade in counterfeit documents, pedaled by immigrants themselves and Bahamians.
Where it is possible for an officer to see six to seven individuals in a day, some workers might see only three people in a week. “What they do with the rest of their time, listen to the radio, talk on the phone, maybe look at a file once or twice.”
“They could really make your life hell. There are people there who get off on putting your life through hell. They feel they are doing well for the Bahamas when it is actually creating more problems. You have some good set who will try, but it is not enough,” said an immigration consultant.
There is an urgent need for standards and transparency in the naturalization process. The system is flawed: it is too arbitrary and the bureaucracy is too corrupt.
It is amazing that individual employees have the power to bring their personal isms to the job and implement their own personal policies to undermine the process so incredibly, when not even the minister has the power to shape the government’s official policies according to his own personal convictions.
Mr Mitchell delivered the keynote address at COB’s immigration forum. He prefaced his presentation by stating clearly that he was speaking about public policy; that his personal views could be found in his 2003 lecture. Interestingly, in 2003, Mr Mitchell prefaced his speech by saying he was speaking personally in the context of an academic setting and that his views should not be interpreted as public policy.
Should we not judge our political leaders according to their personal convictions and then expect them to carry those positions forward in public policy? I wanted to put the question to Mr Mitchell ever since I read his 2003 address. I finally had my chance, not to practice gotcha journalism; to the contrary, some of his 2003 views are extremely informative, and I wish only that they could be reflected in public policy today. Some of the problems we experience could be resolved if we could address the challenges that arise from the legal definition of who is a Bahamian.
Mr Mitchell argued in his 2003 address, the legal definition of a Bahamian created under the newly formed constitution of 1973 “made it harder not easier to deal with the question of who belongs to The Bahamas”.
It seems no one at the time realised how messy the legal definition was and “the absolute public policy nightmare that the definition created”.
The law sets up a tiered system that establishes different claims to citizenship according to gender, marital status, place of birth and ancestry. And as stated, the government’s policies are further complicated by the individual biases of immigration officers, who allegedly invent their own criteria to establish an individual’s right or claim to citizenship.
The post-independence legal definition established a split “from the qualifying legal concept before Independence but also from what was considered Bahamian in the social and cultural sense and in our common understanding both prior to and after independence.”
Notwithstanding the technicalities of law, as a Bahamian woman, regardless of my marital status or where my child is born, I have an expectation within my social consciousness that my child will be Bahamian, because socially and culturally Bahamians apply a different standard and have different expectations of who is a Bahamian. But the reality is, depending on my circumstance, there may be no automatic legal right to citizenship for my child, or even a valid claim.
There are also examples of immigrants who are accepted in the society to the extent that they are excelling in school, receiving national honours, paying taxes and have functional careers, established businesses and communities; in other words, for social and cultural purposes they are Bahamian, but in the absence of a standardized and transparent system, according to someone’s arbitrary position, they can be dismissed as illegals and refused legal status.
Immigrants are functioning in society in spite of the system, not because the system empowers them to do so. Not that they should be empowered in any special way, but they should not be discriminated against arbitrarily.
At the COB forum, Natacha Jn-Simon discovered for the first time that her Certificate of Identification (CIF) did not entitle her to work in the Bahamas. She is a born and raised, not-yet-Bahamian College of the Bahamas student. Since she applied for citizenship on her 18th birthday, Natacha is now on the indefinite wait-and-see track that has kept some Bahamians in limbo for decades. In the meantime, if she now wishes to work, her employer has to pay for an annual work permit to hire her legally.
“I was surprised. It shows the stupidity of the laws. What is really a disturbance is that you can sit in a classroom for 12 years with people, but because you don’t have a (Bahamian) passport you don’t have the same rights as them,” said Natacha the C R Walker High School graduate, who is now a freshman at COB.
The irony is that many of the leaders who in essence cemented this problem, those who created the current restrictive and culturally contradictive legal definition of who is a Bahamian, were first generation Bahamians themselves, having at least one foreign parent. Some of them would not have met the standards for automatic citizenship.
Mr Mitchell made an important statement in 2003 that holds currency today and should be our guiding objective: “I would argue here that we must try as we move forward to ensure that the legal definition of who is a Bahamian comes as close as possible to the social or cultural definition of who is a Bahamian. My argument is that this is in the best interest of our country as we move forward in this century. It is in my view in the best interests of the sovereignty and independence of this country to be inclusive in our legal definition as Bahamians, not exclusive.”
He said birth and ancestry should be considered for Bahamian citizenship, but not necessarily in tandem.
“They can be separate legal bases for the claim of citizenship. In other words, you ought to get to Bahamian citizenship either by birth or by ancestry, whether married or not and whether through the male or female lines,” stated Mr Mitchell.
So what happened to those views? Where is the public policy to reflect them?
Mr Mitchell stands by his 2003 view. He even agrees, “You are supposed to bring your individual consciousness to government policy”. However, he said the government is a body corporate, and “a work in progress” at that. As an agent of that body (when in government), he and all other public officials represent government policy.
*That position hardly seems acceptable, albeit true. As the minister, his personal views are not irrelevant, but they do not change the fact that his actions are constrained by the official policies he is charged to carry out. However, he could still be a vocal advocate for his positions. We need more champions at the level of national leadership speaking to these issues.
Unfortunately, there is not enough like-minded conviction amongst the true power brokers of government to move the process forward in a progressive way. Indeed, the vast majority of Bahamians have far more conservative views on immigration – some of them motivated by a misplaced fear of certain foreign nationals taking over the country.
In one vein they rail about the Bahamas being so small, and its vulnerability to population inflows, and in another they lament the Bahamas being so under-populated that it desperately needs controlled migration for economic development. But it seems controlled migration is only okay for certain immigrants.
Mr Mitchell has asked to appear before the Constitutional Commission. When he appears, he is undecided about whether he will speak to his previous positions. Either way, however, he said he plans to urge the commission to make recommendations to expand rights instead of contracting them.
“The constitution is not meant to contract rights. If you cannot expand those rights then leave the constitution where it is. The principle of the constitution is to amplify rights and to protect people’s rights. If you can’t, then leave it as is,” said Mr Mitchell at the COB forum.
There is no doubt in my mind the legal definition of citizenship should be amended. If I was born in the Bahamas, come of age in the Bahamas, and seek to contribute in a positive way to the development of the society, my claim to citizenship should be a birthright, not some arbitrary decision. It is simply the fair thing to do.
We should move away from our present exclusive position in which people of dual heritage are forced to choose, or where one’s heritage alone is not sufficient to embrace someone as Bahamian.
We are far from having a national consensus on these points. If a constitutional referendum were to be held today it would fail miserably, because Bahamians are stubbornly unwilling to do away with the outmoded and discriminatory standards of determining who is a Bahamian.
And Bahamians are unwilling to formally accept immigrants or the children of immigrants amongst their ranks, regardless of their ancestral connections or birthplace, even though they are in many cases already active members of our communities. Bahamians will use the labour of immigrants to build the country – in education, in the uniformed divisions, in business – but they will not accept them as Bahamian.
It cannot be denied the current process we have to determine who is a Bahamian is unfair; it is not standardized and it is not transparent. The conflict between the laws in place and the social and cultural norms create unnecessary and harmful social tensions. And we need to do better.
• Follow Noelle Nicolls on Twitter @noelle_elleon.
April 15, 2013