The thorny citizenship issue

Like the Minnis administration before it, the Davis administration has committed to forging new paths to citizenship through statutory means.

Attorney General Ryan Pinder caused a bit of a stir last week when he suggested at a press conference at the Office of the Prime Minister that referendums tend to produce the wrong result.

“Look at what happens in referendums,” Pinder said. “A lot of the time, the right thing doesn’t get done. We are about governing for the right thing.”

In the Senate in June, he announced, “We will advance appropriate legislation to finally bring equality to Bahamian men and women in the transmission of citizenship to their children, bringing to conclusion through law the vexing issues we experience of inequality in this country.”

By bringing a citizenship bill, the government will cite Article 13(a) of the constitution which empowers Parliament to “make provision (a) for the acquisition of citizenship of The Bahamas by persons who do not become citizens of The Bahamas by virtue of the provisions of this chapter …”

Former Attorney General Sean McWeeney, who chaired the last Constitutional Review Commission, which reported in 2013, noted when he discussed this issue with The Nassau Guardian, the constitution was never intended to exhaustively provide for all the circumstances in which you can obtain Bahamian citizenship.

“It dealt with certain special categories which were rooted in pre-existing entitlements and they wanted to make sure that those categories of persons were properly provided for, but there are a whole slew of other categories that were never intended to be provided for in the constitution; and that’s why we have always had a Nationality Act since we were independent to deal with the circumstances under which citizenship can be acquired otherwise than by reference to the constitution,” McWeeney said.

Although the government has not yet released a bill for consultation, the issue has understandably ignited discussion on what has long been a thorny and controversial issue, especially with the decades-long illegal immigration problem.

On Sunday, Bahamas Christian Council President Bishop Delton Fernander said effecting citizenship changes via legislation will be the “wrong route”.

“Obviously, if the legislative route could have been done, why did we go through two referendums?” he asked.

While stating “unequivocally” that the Free National Movement (FNM) supports Bahamian women and men being able to pass on citizenship to their children, FNM Leader Michael Pintard said on Tuesday, “What we are concerned about, however, is any attempt to introduce legislation to solve this issue without having conversations with a population who on two separate occasions pronounced a verdict.”

It is a shame that nearly 50 years after Bahamian independence, we are still having a discussion on whether the children born to any Bahamian should have an automatic entitlement to citizenship, and have failed to reach agreement on achieving the same.

Religious leaders, some of whom were successful in muddying the debate ahead of the 2016 constitutional referendum, should state whether they think the children born abroad to Bahamian women married to foreign men should continue to be denied this right in 2022.

The constitutionality of bringing citizenship legislation to effect the changes that were rejected in referendum will certainly be called into question by some.

We know of at least one current Cabinet minister, who, in opposition, had said any move to bring such legislation could be unconstitutional.

Fred Mitchell, who is now minister of foreign affairs, was quoted in the Tribune in 2017 as saying the Minnis administration’s plan to amend the Bahamas Nationality Act to grant children of Bahamian women born outside The Bahamas automatic citizenship “almost certainly” runs “ultra vires of the constitution”.

With the plan to bring legislation announced, the stage has been set for what is likely to be another round of contentious public debate on citizenship.

Will the Davis administration summon the political will to address this issue once and for all, or will it back down in the face of what is sure to be some political fallout from those who view the move as a reversal of the will of the people as expressed twice in referendums?

We agree with Pinder that the time has come to do the right thing.

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