Sunday, Dec 15, 2019
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We cannot let undocumented workers just work

The Bahamas has essentially had an unemployment rate above 10 percent for a decade. We endured recession and stagnation for most of that period. It took our country a long time to emerge from the Great Recession.

Our people need work and entrepreneurial opportunity. Our government needs to lead policies to help toward those goals.

Local human rights activist Fred Smith, QC, has said the government should not detain undocumented migrants but instead allow them to work.

“Detention ought not to apply to immigrants,” he said during a hearing on the treatment of migrants in The Bahamas, which took place on Friday at the 172nd session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Kingston, Jamaica.

“So the reality is, just as the government for hundreds of Cubans years ago bailed them out and allowed them to go into the community on condition that other members of the community would return them, many Haitian migrants or those waiting for documentation can live and be constructive and productive members of the society instead of it costing the government hundreds of millions of dollars, as you say, to keep them in an illegal detention center.

“Let them out and let them work in the community.

“The Bahamas is a small country, but we need hundreds of thousands of more people to make it grow and produce.”

Smith is right that The Bahamas is underpopulated. New Providence is our only well-populated island based on size.

Smith is wrong, though, to say that we should just let undocumented people work. That would amount to a free for all in which immigration laws and policy would be meaningless.

Let’s be specific. In the context of Smith’s remarks there are two issues at play. In The Bahamas there are thousands of undocumented people who were born in The Bahamas. This results from waves of migration from the failed Haitian state.

It is our view that for the longstanding people who were born here, educated here, and who work here, status should be given. We should not deport a 25-year-old woman who was born at Princess Margaret Hospital, who went to government primary and high schools, who now works at a mainstream retailer.

However, we cannot have a policy stating that any person can work here whether he or she has legal status or not.

While we have a responsibility to normalize those who were born here and have been here a long time, we must turn back and legally deport those who now illegally enter our borders and seek work.

What we do support is a proper, merit-based immigration system that welcomes people from around the world with skills that do not exist in The Bahamas. We need an infusion of people who have the talents and creativity to innovate in our economy. We do not think The Bahamas should import unskilled laborers, as we have a surplus of indigenous unskilled laborers. 

Legal, merit-based immigration is needed in The Bahamas. Smith has pushed that message before and that’s what he should continue to champion. 

Our islands are vastly underpopulated and there is a skills deficit. Progressives should lobby for this and not suggest random people should be allowed to come here, stay and work.

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