Diplomatic Notes

Haitian shantytown complexities

Illegal immigration represents a global quandary. From the United States to Europe to Africa and the Caribbean the debate rages over how to handle illegal immigrants. In Europe thousands of immigrants from Africa poured into many countries seeking relief from deplorable conditions or just seeking a better way of life. For a time, many were welcomed by the European countries, then there was a sudden shift, and illegal immigrants were no longer welcome over concerns about assimilation and impact on the culture. In the United States (US), after years of discussions about immigration and varying policies such as wet foot/dry foot for Cuban immigrants, former US President Donald Trump took a hardline stance to the point of calling for the building of a wall to keep immigrants out. I recently spoke with a Trinidad native, and they were decrying the encroachment of Venezuelans who illegally enter Trinidad and were accused of importing a COVID variant that has crippled the country forcing lockdowns and border closings.

Closer to home the problem of illegal immigrants has been a particularly complex and vexing problem in The Bahamas for decades. At issue are several things for a country such as ours. We are a small state, and our primary source of illegal immigration is a much larger state. In countries in Europe and the United States, larger states with extensive resources, can more easily assimilate millions of immigrants and not feel the same impact that a small state would. The situations like the Mexican border in the United States and the African and Middle Eastern refugees in Europe have become major news item as countries seek to strike a balance between helping and accommodating the economically and politically disadvantaged populations of their neighbors.

How should countries respond in general and how should The Bahamas respond, in particular?

The quandary arises when countries become torn between helping the disadvantaged and enforcing their own laws to protect their citizens from themselves being disadvantaged by outsiders. On the one hand we may see it as a Christian duty to be kind and accommodating to the weak, poor and disadvantaged – and on the other hand, enforce the rule of law which is essential to maintaining order and protecting the rights of legal citizens.

What should we do globally and more specifically how should we handle it in The Bahamas?

I believe we all recognize that if we allow illegal immigration unfettered, we are pursuing a course of disorder and disadvantage to legal citizens as the illegal immigrants tend to consume resources and drain the vital services needed to maintain the country. In our case, being neighbors to a country with a much larger population, we are uniquely disadvantaged and subject to the specter of being overwhelmed to the point where the illegal immigrants can easily outnumber the legal residents thereby changing the culture and creating two countries in one. As Christians we are told to be kind to strangers and to help the disadvantaged, but we are also admonished and commanded to obey and enforce laws.

How do we handle this quandary?

I believe we must begin by understanding that for effective function and civility we must begin with order. Where there is disorder there will eventually be chaos. Where there is no enforcement of laws the end is anarchy. So, we must first of all maintain order and ensure that our laws are respected. This means we have to arrest, detain and deport people who have violated the order of The Bahamas. We cannot allow illegal immigrants to have a different set of laws than our citizens.

It is difficult to have to administer the law in this environment because we understand the challenges illegal immigrants face and realize that they are here many times in desperation to avoid dire conditions at home. We must administer the law, but we must also exercise compassion in the process knowing that but for the circumstances of our birth we may have been the ones needing refuge. So, while we are compelled to enforce the laws, we are also compelled to be compassionate in the process and execute our legal responsibilities with sensitivity and civility. We must also separate persons who were born in The Bahamas illegally from those who illegally enter of their own volition. For those born in The Bahamas we must ensure that they are given the opportunities afforded by the law based upon their status and not treat them the same as other illegals. We should have a clear path to assimilation for those born in The Bahamas regardless of the circumstances of their birth since in most cases they do not even know their country of parental heritage.

While many would be critical of the United States’ approach of building a wall, I am almost certain if such a wall could have been built in The Bahamas it would have been built a long time ago because Bahamians have been forever perplexed by the continuous flow of illegal immigrants. So, the conclusion I have come to is that we wear two hats – the hat of order and the hat of compassion. Order is first and compassion is second, although order should be executed with compassion. We enforce laws without fear or favor, but we must have compassion in the process and do unto others as we would have them do unto us. There is no easy solution, but we must continue to strive to preserve The Bahamas as we know it, otherwise we will become victims of proximity and the needs of others before our own needs.

I am always reminded of the instructions given by flight attendants in the airline industry, the instructions indicated that you should put your mask on first before you put on the mask for others. Once you are okay you can help others. If you put the mask on for others before you put on your own, you may lose consciousness and lose your life trying to help others. We must be able to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others and in order to take care of ourselves. We need our resources available to us first and then we can share from a point of compassion, second.

Haitians in The Bahamas come here for different reasons and there is culpability on the part of many business people who continue to hire and even encourage the presence of immigrants. Bahamians are not always innocent victims; they are in some cases the instigators of the problem. I have spoken with many local contractors and landscapers who have stated point blank that they would not be in business without Haitians because the work ethic of Bahamians is sorely lacking. This leads us to situations like The Mudd in Abaco and the varying shantytowns in New Providence. We have through negligence or complicity allowed these communities to exist and now we have a major challenge between law and compassion.

Can we allow illegals to build shanty houses in violation of building codes and then enforce the law on Bahamians? Obviously, we should not, but we have allowed the problem to develop and persist by inaction. This leads us to the Hurricane Dorian catastrophe. If the law had been enforced, many lives would have been saved. Now that the communities have been ravaged do we round up all of the illegal immigrants and deport them? Again, this leads us to the dilemma of compassion and order. Compassion says we need to make sure these people are safe and that they are able to exist with the basics of life before we get into the deportation discussion.

Once they have food, shelter and their basic needs met, then we can address the legal versus illegal situation. Some Bahamians have unnecessarily demonized Haitians lumping all into the box of voodoo-practicing, criminally-oriented people who died because of God’s judgement. I believe this is a narrow and simplistic narrative that should not exist. I am sure there are bad elements in the Haitian immigrant population, but as we traverse the country many of us would have to admit that there are some very good, productive non-voodoo Haitians who have and will continue to contribute positively to the development of The Bahamas. I personally know of many. Some of the best members of our church are people of Haitian descent. We should not try to absolve ourselves by putting blanket blame on Haitians. There are some very bad Bahamian people who have the same characteristics we attribute to and condemn Haitians for.

We cannot allow Haitians to construct new shantytowns, but we have to consider their plight if they have nowhere to live. If they are here illegally, they should be repatriated because this is what the law says. If they are here legally with no place to live, if they are employed, we should seek to assist with living accommodations that they would make a contribution to. I believe the government should be proactive and seek to identify proper accommodations that the Haitians who live or lived in shantytowns can pay for and be assured of shelter. I am not sure of the status of the temporary homes that were erected in Abaco, but if these are not being used by Bahamians, they could be allocated for displaced Haitians who have legal status.

My recommendation for The Bahamas is that we focus on the two words order and compassion. Let’s maintain order but exercise compassion in the process. I also believe that Haitian leaders in The Bahamas should seek the same thing, order and compassion. They should recognize the quandary The Bahamas faces and do their part to ensure that they do not exacerbate the situation but help to bring order. We can work together to bring about a solution that balances these two elements and it will take all involved to achieve this.

• Pastor Dave Burrows is senior pastor at Bahamas Faith Ministries International. Feel free to email comments, whether you agree or disagree, to pastordaveburrows@hotmail.com. I appreciate your input and dialogue. We become better when we discuss, examine and exchange. 

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