by Larry Smith
As Franklyn Wilson noted, the country's overall approach to immigration was settled as far back as the early 1970s, and yet we can still waste time over it today. The issue was put to rest by the implementation of a strict Bahamianisation policy by the new PLP government, accompanied by a massive investment in education.
These two policy shifts reversed a trend towards the wholesale recruitment of expatriates, and broadened educational opportunities for Bahamians who could then expand the nation's middle class.
As the late Dr Keva Bethel described the period immediately following the Second World War: "The highest forms of employment to which the majority of Bahamians were likely to be able to aspire...were posts in the civil service, teaching, nursing, or the church. Moreover, only a proportionately modest number actually achieved those positions."
But in the first years after majority rule in 1967, the government spent as much as 19 per cent of the annual budget on education, building new schools throughout the country to provide better education for all Bahamian children.
As access to full secondary education expanded, Bethel wrote, "more Bahamians (were able) to enter areas of work that had formerly been closed to them—both in the public sector and in the rapidly developing private sector—and to proceed to tertiary-level education both at home and abroad."
This new approach to immigration was advertised by the extension of controls over the city of Freeport in 1970. Amid fears over abrogation of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, the PLP government insisted on exercising final control over all work permit holders in Freeport.
In 1969 Prime Minister Lynden Pindling made his famous “bend or break” speech on Grand Bahama: "In this city, where, regrettably, almost anything goes, where, promisingly, some economic opportunities have come to Bahamians, Bahamians are nevertheless still the victims of an unbending social order, which, if it now refuses to bend, must be broken," he said.
The new Immigration law that followed nullified the relevant clauses in the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, and asserted the government's sole control over immigration matters. This dramatic action in Freeport set the tone for the government's medium-term approach to immigration throughout the country.
And a 1971 royal commission headed by a West Indian former chief justice reaffirmed the government's right to control immigration policy, both for reasons of national security and to give job priority to qualified Bahamians.
What followed was a vigorous campaign to Bahamianise the work force, which affected large numbers of expatriate teachers and other professionals. And the Independence constitution was designed to restrict the right of those born in the Bahamas to become citizens, which affected many Haitian and West Indian migrants, while many white residents who held Bahamian status were also denied citizenship.
This protectionism fuelled a perception that the government's policy was capricious and arbitrary. Stories abounded of bribes paid for work permits, businesses harassed by officials, residents humiliated for no reason, and deals made with favoured expatriates. In other words, immigration policy became overtly political and counter-productive.
Although the initial policy goals may have been rational, there was little doubt that the government's ideological intransigence and protected inefficiency contributed to a decline in investor confidence and a fall-off in development during the 1970s, when many out island resorts and other businesses closed. Global turmoil and high inflation sparked by the 1973 Arab oil embargo also played a major role in the economic downturn.
Another consequence of the immigration crackdown was the impact it had on education. The government wanted to improve, as well as to Bahamianise, the system. According to historian Michael Craton (himself a former teacher at the Government High School), "There was a rapid expansion of secondary schools on New Providence, a stronger emphasis on technical training, and attempts were made to increase the relevance and Bahamian content of the curriculum."
The 2012 Labour Force Survey put the Bahamian workforce at 192,205. With unemployment around 14 per cent and youth unemployment at almost 30 per cent, there is no denying we have a serious social and economic problem on our hands.
However, a recent Inter American Development Bank report identified a massive skills shortage in the country. This skills gap is expected to become more acute as new investments come on stream, something which the prime minister has already acknowledged. The inevitable result of a skills gap is high unemployment among poorly educated workers and young people.
So the IDB report concluded that training and education can drive our economic and social growth.
The latest work permit figures we have are from the last administration, which reported 7,091 permits approved in 2011 - less than 5 per cent of the labour force. More than half of these were for housekeepers and handymen. Typically, the current administration has provided no numbers or background information to help illuminate this debate.
But there are a lot of resentful anecdotes out there in social media land about super-qualified, degree-holding Bahamians who are unable to get a job in their own country. Clearly, those stories need to be verified, and when they are we should have a serious conversation about that.
I dare say there are abuses to the immigration laws, just as there are abuses to every other law in the country. I also think it is clear that education and social issues have a lot more to do with the jobless rate than a few foreigners who may be partying down at our expense.
We know, for example, that Atlantis employs over 8,000 people but only 74 are on work permits, which is less than the number permitted by the Heads of Agreement Perry Christie negotiated in his last term. And Atlantis has had to spend more than $20 million on training, while the recent IDB study reported that more than half of all businesses in the country also support training programmes.
The total lack of facts, perspective and logic in this important national debate is most unsettling. But here is what Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell had to say recently: the current immigration policy is the same as the previous immigration policy. The only difference is tone and application. And since immigration policy is applied by the government, if egregious abuses exist, we know exactly where to look.
It's like licensing the number houses every year for 20 years, and then accusing them of operating illegally.
For example, if a major hotel makes speaking Russian a requirement for dealing with American guests (as one commenter alleged on Facebook recently), I am certain that the officers in the Immigration and Labour Departments are smart enough to spot such a glaring discrepancy and deal with it upfront - without launching a belated police action to take someone into custody in front of hotel guests.
But according to Mitchell, no-one should criticise this "shoot first and ask questions later" policy on the part of his officers, who are only doing their job. What a ludicrous position to take. It is the job of the Immigration Department to know the status of all expatriates in the community - since they are the ones who vet them. There should be no need to ask permit holders what their status is.
That brings us to the question of why this issue is being pushed so vehemently now, when the basic issues were settled decades ago. Well, the new government faces a long uphill struggle to expand economic opportunities for Bahamians. And fixing the education system will not have an impact for years (although the education minister has commendably put together a bi-partisan committee to look at the problem).
So the easiest way to assuage the demand for jobs in a difficult economic climate is to make a play on the words "putting Bahamians first". This is what Mitchell's hardline talk is all about. Indeed, we believe it goes further than that. He is staking out his strategy for the PLP's pending leadership succession.
As we know, different ministers have had different and often contradictory things to say about immigration policy, among other policies. In fact, it is difficult to discern the outlines of any government policy today, because cabinet ministers appear to be operating independently.
However, there is one thing we are sure of - reverting to the Pindling era of political intimidation and racial hostility is no recipe for either economic development or social equity. It is so easy for cynical politicians to spout aggressive propaganda with no constructive engagement, but where will that get the rest of us in the end?