Immigration: How we got here

Immigration has been controversial in The Bahamas even before independence.

Freeport’s development in the 1950s as an overwhelmingly foreign enclave was preceded by the immigration of Greek and Chinese nationals as well as by Turks and Caicos Islanders. That increase in foreign residents was compounded by the arrival of refugees escaping right-wing dictatorships and Communist dictatorship in Haiti and Cuba fueling concerns of foreign dominance. The concerns were heightened by the arrival of Commonwealth Caribbean economic migrants and the mushrooming in the number of Haitian illegal immigrants.

Majority government and then independence saw a hardening of Bahamian positions against foreign persons entering the country for purposes other than as visitors.

As a result, the colonial practice of granting belonger status to international persons permitting their engagement in all segments of the economy was ended as was the lax immigration policies for Freeport.

Thereafter Bahamianization became the watchword of nationhood.

This resulted in numerous Bahamians being afforded educational and professional training abroad. Upon their return opportunities were needed for them to utilize their new skills. As a consequence many were engaged at levels appropriate to their training and expertise.

The rapid expansion of a Bahamian middle class ensued. Qualified Bahamians took their rightful places in positions long reserved for expatriates at the top echelons of the public service, in banking, accounting, medicine and the law.

A policy meant to ensure a rightful place for Bahamians in their own country fell prey to misapplication and abuse. In the two decades following independence, immigration became a weapon in the hands of some politicians and public officers with their own agendas.

Citizenship was carefully guarded. Even the foreign-born children and spouses of Bahamian women were suspect and not easily accommodated.

Work permits were conditioned on the non-availability of a qualified Bahamian whether suitable or not for the position, and then only with a commitment that a Bahamian would be trained to fill the post.

The grant of permanent resident status with the right to work was rare. It was preferred that foreigners remained on work permits even if in the satisfactory employment of the Government for decades.

Many expatriates, who had long contributed to the country’s development, had work permit renewals denied and were then ordered to wind up their affairs and leave the country.

Two agreements concluded between the governments of The Bahamas and Haiti meant to reduce illegal migration, regulate the inflow of Haitian nationals and to facilitate the grant of immigration status to Haitians who had resided in The Bahamas illegally for periods in excess of 10 years were marginally effective.

Some families of Bahamian women were separated when foreign spouses were refused work permits and forced to take up employment overseas.

Night raids of shantytowns where the undocumented lived became usual in New Providence and in Abaco. In Abaco, most of the undocumented migrants and their families had arrived legally as farm laborers. When the farms ceased operation owners failed to repatriate the laborers or their families. These became the nucleus of the sprawling shantytowns in Pigeon Pea and the Mud in Abaco today.

Once detained illegal migrants could expect to be charged and convicted and then held for deportation at Her Majesty’s Prison together with other criminal convicts, sometimes for long periods. Repatriation would follow via the unsanitary, slow-moving government owned MV Eastore.

Notwithstanding, some individuals received citizenship, permanent residents and work permits – some at a substantial ‘informal’ cost, some because of connections to powerful people and some because they were entitled or met the requirements and could not be denied.

(To be continued)

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