Immigration is when a country receives people from another country for residential rather than visiting purposes. Immigrants, those who migrate through immigration, significantly contribute to the economy and social construct of a society. But for small island developing states (SIDS) like The Bahamas, the topic of immigration becomes sticky even on both ends-legal and illegal. Immigration policy considers job security, public assistance, labor issues and enforcement issues.
There are usually four types of immigration status that exist: citizens, residents, non-immigrants and undocumented. Developing economies often struggle to enforce immigration policies because of undocumented migrants. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments will consider improving policies for immigration enforcement to better manage resources and expectations. However, human rights experts have warned that the pandemic is not to be linked to immigration enforcement in any manner. With the topic being extremely sensitive, particularly in a national crisis, measures will need to be put in place to ensure that it is managed properly and to minimize the occurrence of illegal immigration post-COVID-19. Prior to the current mandatory lockdowns, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced that a strike force would be established to aggressively pursue illegal migrants in The Bahamas as he declared it is time to “take our country back”. This segment will explore the impact of immigration from both ends, post-COVID-19.
Undocumented workers in a global pandemic
With COVID-19 being a time for societies to come together to help each other, it has also raised awareness of the risks that poor immigration enforcement has led to regarding undocumented migrants in a global health crises. Studies have found that undocumented workers are prone to a high risk of infection and generating new clusters of infection (United Workers Nation, 2020). This is something that the Bahamian government should follow closely considering the high level of undocumented migrants that are in The Bahamas and reside in precarious living and work conditions that may not enforce strict social distancing protocols. A recent joint statement from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Organization for Migration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Health Organization states that, “It is vital that everyone, including all migrants and refugees, are ensured equal access to health services and are effectively included in national responses to COVID-19, including prevention, testing and treatment. Inclusion will help not only to protect the rights of refugees and migrants, but will also serve to protect public health and stem the global spread of COVID-19.” Public health risks increase when there is no effective way of managing or testing undocumented migrants due to fears of being detained. Also, economic conditions for undocumented migrants may have deteriorated due to lockdown restrictions, resulting in a loss of income. New Providence also has the highest number of reported cases; therefore, testing, strict social distancing procedures and other health precautions need to be highly enforced. But just months ago, Hurricane Dorian displaced many illegal Haitian migrants which increases the search of a new home and means of income. Therefore, tackling issues surrounding illegal immigration is important for the safety of Bahamian citizens and residents that are in compliance with laws and contribute to the economic and social development of The Bahamas.
Immigration and employment
Across the globe, migrant workers such as maids, garbage collectors, farm hands and construction workers are faced with critical concerns regarding job security, social benefits and some may even be stranded as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. Against this backdrop, thousands of Bahamian workers are applying for government assistance as unemployment numbers soar and small to medium-sized (SMEs) businesses struggle to survive, particularly in the Family Islands. This scenario has showed flaws not only in an immigration system but in a labor market that permits foreign workers to do jobs that Bahamians are highly capable of doing. This is not to criticize migrant workers who want to work in The Bahamas, but there should be mechanisms put in place to ensure that there is a limited amount of time that one can obtain work in the country and also assurance of training for future Bahamian employees. The economic contribution of foreign workers should be measurable.
There should be no industry that hires a disproportionate ratio of Bahamians to foreign workers. There is a need for a detailed database for each industry in the country that has a profile of every employed/unemployed Bahamian in search of a job or better opportunity. In this case, Bahamians are able to fill posts and if needed, receive training for a limited time from foreign resources. It also protects the rights of migrant workers because an overcrowded labor market can make jobs scarce and therefore, economic conditions become harder for those who are entitled to employment or government assistance. Therefore, protecting the well-being of migrant workers is equally important to prioritizing jobs for Bahamians.
In closing, COVID-19 along has highlighted the need for stronger enforcement of immigration laws. Without this, the labor market is at risk of human rights errors and higher unemployment numbers. It is time to properly train Bahamians for better jobs and allow them to have priority in accessing those jobs, particularly in a crisis. Every country has a right to protect the livelihood of its citizens and residents. Therefore, following and adhering to immigration laws are important. In addition, immigration policies should ensure the social and economic development of The Bahamas. While immigration plays an important part in providing countries with greater innovation and invention, these skills/assets should be passed on to and secured by Bahamians.
• Roderick A. Simms II is an advocate for sustainable family island growth and development. Email RASII@ME.com.