Immigration bill passes in Senate; Symonette dismisses concerns
Immigration Minister Brent Symonette yesterday dismissed claims made by the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) that the Immigration (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is “ill-conceived” and “loosens the controls that we presently have of our borders”, saying that the claims are nothing more than a political red herring.
It passed in the Senate yesterday evening with opposition members voting against it.
“It doesn’t loosen the borders and for someone like Fred Mitchell to say that is ridiculous because he was a minister of immigration,” Symonette told reporters on the sidelines of the 20th Anniversary STEP Caribbean Conference at Baha Mar yesterday.
“As I said in my earlier comments, the immigration officers have a very wide ambit of powers that can deny [people] access.
“So, that’s a non-starter. That’s a total political red herring.”
Symonette added that the purpose of the amendments to the bill is to increase the ease of doing business in The Bahamas.
“So, the immigration bill is being discussed in the Senate today of which Mr. Mitchell has put out a press release in saying it’s taking us back [and] dismantling Bahamianization.
“…There are two aspects of that bill; one is the BH-1B visa which I think you’ve heard us talk about, [which] is an attempt for us to get tech businesses here in The Bahamas, where for instance the 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…”
He added that there are a number of companies interested in investing in The Bahamas, noting that Dell is hosting a convention in The Bahamas soon with 1,400 delegates.
Symonette said the government sees a viable industry in tech in Grand Bahama.
He also addressed the question as to why the minimum to start business is $250,000 as opposed to a higher figure.
Symonette said advances in technology have reduced the overhead cost of doing business.
He added that the figure does not stop Bahamians from getting into business, however, he admitted that there needs to be a way for Bahamians to get easier access to capital.
“Any of you know that you go into the bank they want too many documents to get a loan, so we have to find a way to [increase] the ease of getting business,” he said.
The second issue some raised about the amendment is that many foreigners will be allowed to come in for certain business reasons for 14 days without the need for a work visa.
“The average tourist in The Bahamas is here for about 2.9 days, so there’s some issue… when you fill out the immigration form to come in, there’s a section [that asks] are you visiting for business,” Symonette said.
“Even though you tick yes, the immigration officer has the right to refuse you entry.
“All you have to do is look at the Immigration Act, it had draconian powers. A lot of people don’t realize it, but the immigration officer at the border has the right to refuse you entry into this country, full stop.
“So, this new policy which [is] enshrining in law is an attempt to make sure discretion is very clear cut [and] the bill says what you’re coming in for.
“So, if you’re a director a CEO and so on and so forth, you come in for a maximum of two weeks to attend meetings.”
He added that if the government keeps a restricted environment on business, the country will cease to grow.
Last month, Bahamas Bar Association President Kahlil Parker criticized the government for not consulting with the bar, claiming the changes would undermine the sovereignty of The Bahamas.
However, Symonette said a number of top Bahamian law firms were consulted about the bill.
“We consulted a number of [people],” he said.
“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 & Trust Companies, The Bahamas Financial Services Board, all of whom have subsidiary members.
“The tourism industry was consulted. 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 Kahlil Parker as head of the bar association? No.”
The Immigration (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was passed in the House of Assembly last month. The bill seeks to provide exemptions for work permits in the country.
Nineteen members voted in favor of the bill; Cat Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador MP Philip Brave Davis voted against it; Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine abstained and 17 members were absent.
Education: Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) 3rd Year