What’s behind the shakeup at immigration?

The Bahamian people are owed an explanation by the government on why sudden changes have been made to the leadership of the Department of Immigration, which over the last several months has been in the spotlight amid claims by the official opposition of shadiness related to citizenship grants and other legal status in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.

Last Friday, we reported information from well-placed sources that Acting Director of Immigration Keturah Ferguson was being placed on leave and offered an early retirement package.

According to those same sources, Deputy Director Dwight Beneby was also being placed on leave.

We do not know who else is being (or has been) moved out of immigration.

The government is mum so far.

We understand that former Director of Immigration William Pratt is joining a growing list of public servants brought back from retirement to take up senior positions throughout the civil service.

Leader of the Official Opposition Michael Pintard has alleged that senior officials in the Department of Immigration are being victimized by the Davis administration.

In a statement, Pintard said, “Nothing makes this more obvious than the replacement of the senior leadership in the Department of Immigration after members of the leadership team acted in defense of the Bahamas constitution, the laws of The Bahamas and the sovereignty of The Bahamas.”

Over the course of months, Pintard has been asking questions about the operations of the department, and more specifically, the actions of Keith Bell as immigration minister.

Last week, Prime Minister Philip Davis, in what was seen by some as an effort to smother the controversies ensnaring Bell and the department, announced that he has been reassigned as minister of housing and urban renewal.

The official opposition had repeatedly called on the prime minister to fire Bell from Cabinet.

We have detailed Bell’s questionable actions as immigration minister in this space on numerous occasions – his ill-considered decision to conduct a citizenship swearing in ceremony at a funeral in June, and his instruction to immigration officials to release a group of Chinese workers found to be working illegally in The Bahamas in January stand out.

Amid the furor and criticisms connected to Bell’s actions, the prime minister in July promised “a comprehensive review” of the checks and balances regarding how immigration decisions are made in The Bahamas. He repeated that pledge last week as he announced his Cabinet reshuffle.

In that same national address, the prime minister praised Bell for the “very substantial accomplishments” he claimed Bell made as immigration minister.

In July, Davis also expressed concern about documents from the Department of Immigration’s confidential files being leaked into the public domain.

Those documents included correspondence written by Ferguson to Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Immigration Cecilia Strachan on January 18, 2023 about Bell’s directive to release the Chinese workers.

Ferguson wrote of the disrespect she was experiencing and said such directives were disconcerting.

The documents also included an email written by Ferguson to Bell and Strachan on July 13, 2022 about people being sworn in as citizens of The Bahamas without renouncing their citizenship of other countries as required by law.

And there were documents related to specific immigration applications that also ended up in the public domain.

The sources of the leaks have not been revealed. We do not know if the powers that be have determined who is responsible.

There is no evidence that Ferguson, Beneby or any other senior member of the department improperly placed confidential immigration documents in the public domain.

The outgoing acting director is seen by many, however, as a whistleblower. The view is that while Bell has enjoyed the favor of the prime minister despite his actions as immigration minister, the public servants in question are being sent on leave with a cloud now hanging over their heads.

At the same time, the powers that be appear to be sending a message to other public servants not to call out or question any inappropriate behavior they may detect.

For a government that repeatedly claims to be committed to transparent and accountable governance, the Davis administration is often slow in delivering on transparent and accountable governance, if they deliver at all.

We call on the prime minister to provide a complete explanation on the shakeup at the top of the Department of Immigration. 

The public has a right to know what prompted those changes.

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