Why Mr Brown has got it wrong on immigration
Senator Michael Fahy is the Minister of Home Affairs
While I applaud MP Walton Brown's efforts to educate Bermudians about immigration matters through a series of public meetings, the first of which was held early this week, I cannot help but be concerned that he intends simply to repeat Opposition exaggerations mixed with convenient amnesia to mislead Bermudians.
The Ministry and I have tried to correct this misinformation as best we can in the past, but so far, Mr Brown and his colleagues have paid little attention.
Mr Brown made a point in his first meeting of reminding those in attendance about attempts nearly two centuries ago to encourage immigrants from the United Kingdom. I'll let readers make up their own minds about why he would do that, but lest there is doubt in anyone's mind, I must say in the strongest possible way that this Government is not in the business of encouraging immigration from the UK or anywhere else.
In fact, I have said on record any number of times that what happened then was wrong and does not represent what the OBA stands for. That is conveniently forgotten by Mr Brown. This is a tiny country known for its high standard of living, which would be overwhelmed by people wanting to settle here if we did not have careful, well-thought-out policies and practices in place. In the broad picture of immigration in the 21st century, that is our main focus.
Although Mr Brown doesn't himself like to own up to it, his party leader Marc Bean acknowledged in a Bernews column about a year ago that it was a PLP Government error that so many PRC holders had to be allowed to apply for Bermuda status as a result of a Supreme Court ruling.
Mr Bean wrote: “It was certainly not the intent of the former government to open the door to Bermudian status for thousands of non-Bermudians and their children. We acknowledge and apologise to the people of Bermuda for this error and pledge that we will do what we can to rectify this issue.” Mr Bean failed to say that his Government was also aware of the very case that brought issues of status before the courts and his Government tried to ignore it.
Mr Bean was wrong on the numbers — it will be hundreds, not thousands of people — but he was right about where the blame must lie.
Mr Brown has strayed from the straight and narrow on both where the blame lies and on the numbers of people involved on many occasions in the past. I hope he's got his facts straight this time.
Mr Brown apparently told his audience that: “If we [the PLP] get in we will singularly revoke those aspects of legislation that we find problematic.” As we have said before, that cannot be done in relation to stopping PRC-holders from getting status. There is no legal step that can be taken that would survive exposure in the courts. But even if there were, is Walton Brown seriously suggesting he would strip people of something they obtained through the Opposition's efforts?
Although Mr Brown made a great to-do about saying that our commercial immigration proposals “would only serve rich, white senior executives who are not the men directly creating jobs”, the whole island must know by now that we have dropped any plan to put commercial immigration in place. Again, readers can make up their own minds as to why Mr Brown would have brought it up. I agree with Mr Brown that this country needs top-to-bottom immigration reform. I have said so in the past. However, reform of that kind would mean a long and difficult process involving many people and many man- hours. As a direct result of what this Government considers gross mismanagement by the previous government, our priority is fixing the economy and getting Bermudians back to work. Immigration reform on that kind of scale will have to wait for a bit. However, lest people think we've been sitting on our hands for the past two-and-a-half years, I would point out that earlier this year, a new Work Permit Policy was completed after consultation with many major stakeholders.
I said at the time the new policy was announced that I thought we had found the right balance between assisting businesses in getting the best employees they can in a competitive marketplace, while also ensuring that qualified Bermudians are given the opportunities we deserve.
I believe this new policy will go a long way with international business to establishing that we are back in the business of welcoming them to Bermuda. They are, as has been said on many occasions, the creators of wealth in this country.
Other significant policy changes include the introduction of the new Global Entrepreneur Work Permit, which has been created to enable individuals who are planning new start-up companies in Bermuda to apply for work permits. This will enable that person to live in Bermuda while conducting his or her business planning.
We have also put in place a requirement for employers to advertise all jobs on the Government Job Board for at least eight consecutive days, and to ensure that where an established graduate training programme or an established exchange internship programme exists that Bermudians, spouses of Bermudians, and PRC holders are given equal opportunities to participate in related programmes. Employers with more than ten work permit holders can be asked to participate in National Training Board initiatives. Failure to do so can affect the employer's ability to obtain work permits.
We have also been enforcing the Immigration Act a great deal better than our predecessors. Earlier this month, the Immigration Compliance section was processing 87 cases of immigration violations. That figure may have increased since then. And we have already issued some $130,000 in penalties from those who have committed offences. Should the 87 ongoing cases all proceed to a penalty the Government would collect approximately $1 million in fines. This is a direct result of the civil penalty regime put in place by this Government. In fact we have prosecuted more offenders and fined more people in our two-and-a-half years than the previous government did in 14 years.
These are facts. However, it is well known that the PLP suffers from a serious memory deficit. Recall, it was his Government that allowed literally scores of people to sit in limbo without decisions being made by an Immigration Appeals Tribunal. We had to clean that mess up.
Finally, and let me make this very clear indeed, Mr Brown's version of comprehensive immigration reform is this: long-term residents should get an opportunity for status — with which this Government agrees. However Mr Brown believes that should happen after independence. He also believes that we should grant status to people by committee — that is what happened pre-1989 — where decisions were made under the cloak of darkness and decisions were based on who you knew. This Government will not support such an initiative. In the era of openness and transparency it seems to me that if people's status applications meet certain published criteria, then that should be that.
I again urge the Opposition to stop using immigration to whip up emotions based on the sins of the past. If they want to talk about immigration properly there can be no red lines in the sand — mind you, sand shifts, so maybe the red line can shift too.