The Bahamian government has won praise for its immigration initiative at home but disturbing questions remain about how it fits with what is moral, what is legal, and what is economically and socially beneficial. The move highlights the startling xenophobia and lack of empathy surrounding Haitian and those of Haitian descent.
Those who have taken issue include Amnesty International and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell has claimed there is no evidence that Haitians are being “rounded up”, mistreated, or denied access to due process, as these organizations have alleged. He said criticisms that the policy and its deployment are inhumane are based on “misinformation” or the trumped up claims of pro-Haitian activists. Some locally have reveled in telling international organizations to, effectively, “stick it.”
We seem happy to let this one slide with no local scrutiny, happy that “something is being done” about an over-growth in immigrants. We should not be so quick to do so. While the government says claims of “round ups” have not been proven, it is what they admit in black and white that highlights a more fundamental problem.
In a September 17th speech to the House of Assembly on the issue, Mitchell said: “Those people who have been born here will get a particular residence permit which will allow them to work and live here until such time as their status pursuant to any application (for citizenship) under the terms of the constitution is decided.”
He then went on to add: “This will not apply to the children of those who are here illegally.”
In The Tribune on October 24, Mitchell said: “If you are here lawfully in the Bahamas, born in the Bahamas lawfully, you should get the passport of your citizenship and you will get a resident stamp to live in the Bahamas.” The government minister had previously confirmed that children born in the Bahamas to illegal migrants “will be deported with their parents.”
The Bahamian constitution states that, “Any person born in The Bahamas after 9th July 1973 neither of whose parents is a citizen of The Bahamas shall be entitled, upon making application on his attaining the age of eighteen years or within twelve months thereafter in such manner as may be prescribed, to be registered as a citizen of The Bahamas.”
There is no statement within this law about this right applying only to those who were “born lawfully” in the country.
There is a serious need for more effective immigration policies and enforcement in our small island nation. But in its approach to those who have been born in The Bahamas to undocumented parents, The Bahamian government is exercising its power to dehumanize those of Haitian descent, enforcing a view that they are simply “wrong from birth.”
This is a position which can only be maintained if we accept that these children are guilty for their parents’ transgressions; if we believe they are subject to a type of “original sin.”
Does “Might Make It Right”?
In the New York Times, professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of The Ethics of Immigration, Joseph Carens, claimed recently in an interview about President Barack Obama’s immigration initiative that there are several distinct questions which are often confused in the debate over this issue. Among them: Who has the authority to decide who gets to enter and remain in a country? And is their decision morally acceptable?
Assuming the citizens of a country do have a moral and legal right to determine whom they let into their country, the award-winning professors added: “Someone can have the right to make a decision and still make a decision that is morally wrong.”
Carens argues that “quite apart” from the question of who should be admitted and whether they can remain, there is the question of how you treat those already there.
“Living and working in a society makes immigrants members of that society over time, even if they arrived and settled without permission. This is clearest for those who arrived as young children… they can’t be blamed for coming here because they were only children when they arrived. So it would be morally wrong to kick them out.”
“We should recognize them, too, as members of society and give them legal status,” he said.
Wrong on a Moral and Practical Level
In its treatment of children born to those without status, The Bahamas’ new immigration policy is unfair and counterproductive. It suggests that the best a child born to illegal parents in The Bahamas can hope for is to leave the country and come back when they are 18 to lodge an application. Even if this right is honored: would we prefer to have people applying for citizenship who have been living in, assimilating into, gaining the values and appreciation of our country, or people who have been forced out, only to come back? Many of those who would be affected by this policy have already been going to our schools, using our resources – should we not capitalize on that, in turn allowing them to reap the benefits of having done so in our own country?
The alternative is for them to go into hiding in The Bahamas. Perhaps they drop out of school, never present themselves to a health clinic, just to avoid being forcibly sent to a country where they have never lived. Or maybe if they have the means, they will get a lawyer and sue. Either way, we shoot ourselves in the foot, economically, socially and legally.
Ethics aside, the lack of logic and forethought is demonstrated by questions generated. For example: what if the parents obtained legal status after the birth? What if one parent is or was legally residing here, and the other not? What if their status at the time was simply not recorded? None of this is addressed. Anyone in this position must be confused and frustrated at least, and at worst, vulnerable to abuse. Meanwhile, the government has yet to provide any statistics suggesting how many people this policy will impact. Exactly how many children are there in this position?
If we are going to change the rules, we should at least be clear on what those rules are: provide some clarity so that those affected can do what is now considered right. And we should back up our thinking with data.
“It’s All About Empathy”
Much wrong can be done out of a lack of empathy.
On listening to a recent radio interview on the Ferguson, MO. killing by police of Michael Brown and the subsequent grand jury decision, Mark Mathabone, South African author of Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid, said the crime and grand jury response boiled down to a lack of empathy between races in US society.
“Michael Brown was never provided a context. He was dehumanized, and now we are rounding up the usual suspects for the post-mortem.
“It’s all about empathy. Michael Brown could have been my kid, or anyone’s kid, so let’s feel his humanity,” he urged.
Without developing this empathy for those whose “contexts” we do not understand, or chose not to, Mathabone said, “America will eventually self-destruct.”
“I’ve been to the ghettos; I’ve been to the prisons – and I’ve seen the future there dying.”
Some might say he could have been speaking of The Bahamas.
There is also a question of culpability. Perhaps we are legitimately angry at those whom we see breaching our laws. But this goes both ways. Like President Obama, the Bahamian government should accept that its own failure to create effective immigration-related policies to date leaves it with responsibility to bear to the innocent children of those who have already come and remained for many years. What we do after that is up for debate.