Monday, Jun 25, 2018

In conflict

A view on immigration fee increase & citizenship
Brent Symonette.

On November 2, 2017, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced that the government intends to amend relevant legislation to ensure that all children born outside The Bahamas to Bahamian women automatically receive Bahamian citizenship.

“My government will make changes to the Immigration Act to ensure that all children born to Bahamian women, single or married, outside The Bahamas, are automatically Bahamians,” Minnis said in the House of Assembly.

(Presumably, the prime minister meant the Bahamas Nationality Act.)

Six months after the prime minister’s announcement in Parliament, no legislation has yet been introduced to bring effect to his words – which were welcomed by Bahamian families who have faced nightmarish scenarios as a result of the constitutional and legislative barriers to their citizenship and that of their children.

Minnis’ announcement about a planned change to the law came just over a year after the Free National Movement had far from enthusiastic support of a gender equality referendum addressing these same issues.

On July 23, 2014, Minnis, then opposition leader, said in the House of Assembly, “Though there is much which divides us in this place, let us speak with one voice when the issue is equality before the law.”

Weeks later on August 13, 2014, he said, however, “I am not prepared to sit here and change the constitution in a fashion to encourage or to bring forth total disaster for future generations.”

While the government has not yet brought the promised change to the Bahamas Nationality Act, in the new fiscal year, people who were born to Bahamian parents (mother or father) who are seeking permanent residence in The Bahamas will see a fee rise from $250 to $1,000.

(This applies to a person born outside The Bahamas whose mother or father acquired citizenship by virtue of Article 3(2) of the constitution.)

We asked Immigration Minister Brent Symonette what was the rationale for the increase given that the prime minister has already expressed a position that people born outside The Bahamas to Bahamians should automatically become Bahamians.

We asked the question, notwithstanding the fact that there was no indication from the prime minister or his government that such a change to the law would be retroactive.

Still, the decision to increase the fee for permanent residence certificates for those born outside The Bahamas to Bahamians seems in conflict with the previously stated policy position.

Symonette explained: “We are separating from this discussion fees and policy.”

“The last fee increase (for immigration) was in 2008,” he noted.

“… When we started the budget exercise, each minister was asked to look at their respective ministries to see the way that we could have revenue enhancement.

“The immigration department advised on their fees and to a large extent apart from, I think, one or two that were decreased, the proposals that I made to Cabinet were effected.”

We asked the minister whether he thought the decision to make permanent residence certificates more expensive for people born to Bahamians outside The Bahamas was in conflict with the planned policy on citizenship.

“A number of immigration things are in conflict,” he responded. “For instance, we don’t have that right at the moment, so when we amend the law, obviously the fees will have to be amended or otherwise, but at the moment we don’t have that luxury. Under the law, persons in that category have to apply to the minister for naturalization as would any other person.”

But he suggested some people who are born outside The Bahamas to Bahamians are looking for the best of both worlds.

“People use the provision you’re talking about in order to retain the passport of the country that they were born in so they can work and benefit from the country that they were born in; those are issues too. I have several of those on my desk, not wanting to become Bahamian,” Symonette said.

He asked: “Why should a (person) born outside the country (to a Bahamian) want permanent residence?”

We responded: “Because the law provides for it.”

The minister then said, “The law also provides for citizenship, so we also have to deal with the issue, which is far more important than worrying about a fee going up from $250 to $1,000.

“There’s the whole question of a man who marries a Bahamian woman; [he] has to give up the passport of his country whereas the woman who marries the Bahamian man does not. That’s far more important, those constitutional issues.

“…So there are a lot of other issues to do with the immigration reform, which we have to deal with, like for instance the [Bahamian woman] married to a foreign man who has a child outside [The Bahamas].

“So I would have thought these were issues you wanted to champion, far more than a [fee] increase.”

Here, the minister seemed to be missing the point of our inquiries.

How is making it more expensive for people born outside The Bahamas (to Bahamians) to become permanent residents in keeping with the stated position to move toward full rights for such people?

We pointed out to the minister that there have been multiple articles in National Review examining the citizenship issue, exploring all sides.

Further, these were not issues the FNM itself “championed” in opposition because it was not politically expedient to do so. The country was clearly in an anti-PLP mood at the time the 2016 constitutional referendum took place.

It turned out to be a referendum on Perry Christie, the then prime minister, and the PLP.

After Prime Minister Minnis – in a one liner last November – announced that the act will be changed, we contacted the attorney general to explore the issue further.

We also observed in this space that such a significant announcement ought to have come by way of a properly structured communication that clearly indicated all the changes the government intends to make in regards to citizenship.

We wondered whether the government also intends to provide for automatic citizenship for the children of unmarried Bahamian men born to foreign women.

In an interview with us after that announcement from the PM, Attorney General Carl Bethel confirmed this was the intent, although he told us no decision had yet been made on whether any of these changes will be made retroactive.

Symonette told us yesterday that the proposed changes to legislation to effect citizenship changes are being looked at and should be presented before the end of this year.

“What we are doing is having the entire Immigration Act and Nationality Act reviewed by law reform. So we will be bringing in this year a whole new act to deal with immigration. So, rather than an amendment piecemeal, we will probably be bringing an entire [bill] later on this year,” he said.

Whenever the government decides to address these citizenship issues, it will no doubt spark debate once again.

The question will likely arise whether the proposed changes can be effected by ordinary legislation.

There have been mixed views in this regard.

When he addressed Rotary ahead of the referendum in 2016, former Chief Justice Sir Michael Barnett noted: “Some have suggested that the changes proposed with respect to citizenship can be effected by ordinary legislation, and an amendment to the Bahamas Nationality Act would be sufficient.

“I do not agree. The provisions for the grant of citizenship which are sought to be corrected are contained in the constitution itself. It is the constitutional provision that is being corrected, and this in my opinion, can only be done by amending the constitution.”

It appears doubtful, however, that the Minnis administration would put the country through another constitutional referendum.

In the meantime, we remain in the position of gross discrimination in respect of citizenship.

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