When governments perceive their popularity to be on a nosedive against a backdrop of national tragedy, a tool in the arsenal of political preservation can be to hone in on a hot button and emotive issue and to exploit that issue so as to create a hero persona on the backs of fear, disinformation or prejudice.
Immigration is one such issue that, in The Bahamas, is inextricably tied to politics and to deeply-rooted public sentiment.
The problem with political underpinnings to focus on key national issues is that deficiencies have a likelihood of going unsolved because the driving intention behind such a focus is not to fix the deficiencies once and for all, but to give the appearance of tackling a problem so as to reverse the trajectory of a waning public opinion.
When the government’s Shanty Town Action Task Force completed its surveys in Abaco’s shantytowns last year, the task force chairman, Labour Minister Dion Foulkes, advised that close to 80 percent of residents had some form of legal status.
Would not an administration serious about cracking down on illegal immigration have, at that point, sought to put before the courts those making up the other 20 percent of residents that its own survey found may not have legal status?
Following the passage of Hurricane Dorian, the government initially announced a suspension of deportations as a humanitarian gesture, with Immigration Minister Elsworth Johnson encouraging displaced migrants to take advantage of the relief being offered as they will have “nothing to worry about”.
At the time that decision was taken, the government would have known that there were any number of illegal migrants displaced, though from its survey it would have considered that number to have been in the minority of those affected.
Still, it was only after public dissent emerged that the government chose to make the seemingly opportunistic switch from humanitarianism to appearing tough on illegal Abaco migrants — the same migrants the government always had the lawful authority to deal with if it had so chosen.
And if the government’s survey results were accurate, it would mean that the overwhelming majority of migrants from Abaco were not going to be sent home in any event, so to give upset Bahamians an impression otherwise would in effect be to exploit their feelings — legitimate or xenophobic — for political gain.
Then came the announcement that Haitian nationals on work permits whose employment would have been interrupted due to Dorian were to leave the country; once again a move that smacked of political kabuki and of discrimination, wherein the same admonition was not given to expatriates on work permit whose places of employment on Abaco and Grand Bahama would have been shuttered.
When the prime minister advised that he instructed Attorney General Carl Bethel to acquire shantytown land on Abaco, the announcement was incredulous given that two of the three shantytowns — The Mudd and Sand Banks — are on Crown lands.
Political theater continued when during a recent visit to Abaco, the prime minister kicked down the back door of a home in Sand Banks, telling police present with him to “tear it down”.
This despite the fact that in a country of laws, there are statutes governing the demolition of one’s dwelling place, none of which that empower the prime minister to do what he did, regardless of who the home belonged to.
The reality is that Dorian has already done the government’s demolition work in Abaco’s shantytowns, so the posturing of bulldozers filing through what Dorian has left behind is not a show of being tough on illegal migrants, but smoke and mirrors that distracts much of the nation’s attention from the government’s response to the deadly and destructive storm.
The longstanding problem of illegal immigration in The Bahamas warrants a serious, genuine and humane approach.
It is not something that political expediency is in any way equipped to address.