On the surface, the Christie administration’s New Immigration Policy should not be controversial. Because, on the surface, one may think that it is merely a renewed resolve to enforce existing laws governing immigration in the Bahamas. Because, on the surface, it has unanimous support across the political spectrum, from PLP to FNM to DNA. Because, on the surface, it enjoys the vast support of the Bahamian electorate, a purported 85%, according to some polls. And that is all that matters in a democracy, right? Wrong.
Wrong, because it continues the long-standing misunderstanding of the meaning of democracy in the Bahamas. Majority Rule, a term carelessly thrown around in our country, is a misnomer, for a democracy is not, must not, be the tyranny of the majority. A democracy must always protect the rights of all individuals – majority and minority, supporter and dissenter.
Wrong, because if governments enforce one set of laws by violating any given number of other laws in the process of doing so, the Rule of Law becomes the first victim of the process. However, without the Rule of Law, what ought to be the guaranteed rights of the individual versus state authority become random acts of kindness – or not – at the arbitrary whim of the state and its executioners. Citizens are asked to trade in their constitutional rights for politicians’ promises of favourable or benign treatment.
Wrong, because it does not really address the challenge that immigration may pose to the Bahamas in any meaningful way. The Bahamas may have an immigration problem, although conclusive empirical data demonstrating that the presence of immigrants indeed negatively affects Bahamian realities is sorely lacking. However, one must not solve an immigration situation merely by victimising immigrants, yet that is what this so-called new so-called immigration so-called policy does. The Bahamas, however, depends on some immigration to alleviate the effects of a failed education system that politicians for generations have refused to address. Furthermore, if there is an immigration problem in a destination country, it is naive to suggest that it could be resolved without addressing the emigration problem in the country or countries of origin. That is what this so-called new so-called immigration so-called policy does not even attempt to address.
It is, therefore, a purely domestic measure, devised by demagogues, to placate an ill-informed electorate in an attempt to reverse the PLP’s dwindling popularity resulting out of other botched domestic measures such as the dual referendum disaster, or the implementation of a regressive value-added tax in an economy already characterised by extraordinarily high income inequality. It is these conditions that disenfranchise large groups of Bahamians socially, politically and economically. A 2005 study by the International Organization for Migration observed that the Bahamian “media does not attempt to help the average Bahamian to understand these important issues, but instead focuses on the negative aspects of the migrant population.” It is these conditions that make the Bahamas such a fertile ground for scapegoating, in this instance expressed through an irrational xenophobia.
In fact, “irrational” seems to be the best word to describe almost any aspect of this so-called new so-called immigration so-called policy. Not only does this “policy” not genuinely address immigration, but the systematic victimisation of vulnerable groups can hardly be considered a new phenomenon. However, most surprising is the Christie administration’s insistence on calling it a policy in the first place. A policy, by definition, as an action guide for the administrative executive branches of government “should solve a public problem without violating the legal boundaries set down by … laws. It must encourage an active citizenry, furthermore, as well as the democratic process.” In contrast to this definition, “policy” in the current Bahamian context would appear to mean an arbitrary system of chicanery, either without any legal foundation, or, at best, pre-empting a legal framework that may be brought forward at some point in the future, that may sanction current infringements upon fundamental rights ex post facto.
Fred Mitchell, Minister of Immigration, himself implicitly admitted that not only the government’s historical approach to immigration was not fully compliant with existing law, but that also the procedures constituting his new stance beginning 1st November, 2014, lack support in Bahamian law. Said Mitchell, “The detention centre was set up without any governance procedures and rules so it’s just going on general principles of management. What needs to happen is similar to the prison – there needs to be a set of regulations which govern the detention centre.” And: New legislation is “already drafted. With these things it’s just working its way through the system. I hope that as soon as parliament reconvenes in January we can move it forward. … [Until then] I can’t say that you must carry your passport, that’s not for me to decide. What is prudent is to have something which identifies you with the Bahamas and the right to live and work here.” In other words, there is no legal requirement for a Bahamian to carry identification with them, but if officers of the Immigration Department encounter you without such identification, you may find yourself in the Detention Centre regardless – even if the Immigration Act (Section 9) clearly stipulates that Immigration Officers do not have the power to arrest citizens or permanent residents.
To make matters worse, it is quite possible – and legal – for a citizen of the Bahamas to be undocumented. If you choose not to drive a land-based motor vehicle, you do not need a driver’s license. If you choose not to vote, you do not need a voter’s card. If you choose not to travel internationally, you do not need a passport. Even taking into consideration the recent introduction of the new National Insurance cards featuring the insured’s photograph, it must be pointed out that signing up for National Insurance is only mandatory for employed or self-employed persons, but not for unemployed persons, who may never choose to seek (self-)employment. (National Insurance Act, Section 12.)
Thus, Bahamians should not fool themselves into believing that they stand to benefit from the current administration’s actions. Their civil liberties as citizens of the Bahamas are being eroded by this “policy” purportedly directed at – and against – immigrants. Human Rights lawyer Fred Smith of the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association (GBHRA), makes a strong argument for this scenario in a lengthy response to the Punch’s Nicki Kelly, which he published on Facebook.
Smith asserts that in the Bahamas, too often, “might makes right.” Part of the problem is that the Westminster System of parliamentary democracy, inherited from our colonisers, was not designed for a body politic as small as ours. In a parliamentary democracy, the elected parliament is supposed to control the executive branch of government, and reign in any abuses of power that may occur. In the Bahamian manifestation of the Westminster System, however, parliament is too small to play that role. After the last election and by-election in 2012, the PLP was left with 30 of the 38 seats in the House of Assembly. Of those 30 MPs on the government side, before minimal re-shufflings and/or firings, every single one of them was not just an MP, but also a cabinet minister, parliamentary secretary, speaker, ambassador or chairman of a government corporation. The way the spoils were distributed thus ensured that instead of parliament controlling the executive, the executive now controls parliament. In reality, the Bahamian Westminster System is therefore a Tyranny of Cabinet.
With both the official opposition of the FNM as well as the extra-parliamentary opposition of the DNA jumping on the populist bandwagon, political relief from these infringements on our civil and human rights appears unlikely. It can only be hoped that legal recourse can be found through the courts, which in the past have already ruled some features, such as roadblocks (or “checkpoints,” the Ministry’s euphemism), of this New Immigration Policy unlawful.