Having just returned from a week-long vacation in The Bahamas with my family, I’d like to report back on some unexpected immigration-related findings. It seems that The Bahamas – a true paradise filled with gorgeous vistas and wonderful people – is subject to the same kind of illegal and legal immigration problems that plague the United States. We spoke to many native Bahamians and, when the conversation turned to employment, virtually all complained about foreign nationals, especially guest workers, taking jobs.
The Bahamas, a country of about 353,000 people, has been plagued by high unemployment for years. The current rate is 12.7% -- 30 percent for youth unemployment -- although the International Monetary Fund predicts the rate will increase to 15.6 percent by the end of 2016. The country is heavily dependent on tourism. Most people work in that service industry, in construction or for the government.
This nation of 700 islands lies just southeast of Florida and in close proximity to Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica – all of which have a lower standard of living. That makes The Bahamas a magnet for economic migrants who seek employment there or a jumping point to the United States.
Most apprehended illegal aliens are Haitian or Cuban nationals, although I’m told those from Jamaica make up a large percentage as well. The nation, like ours, also sees repeat offenders. An immigration official was recently quoted as saying, “This is the third time she [Cuban national] has been intercepted at sea by the US Coast Guard and handed over to us and subsequently sent to Nassau to the Detention Centre and repatriated to Cuba.”
To facilitate enforcement, The Bahamas in November 2014 instituted a requirement for all foreign nationals to carry a passport at all times. No passport or entry stamp, hello deportation. The policy also says that children born to foreign nationals who are not married to a Bahamian father are not Bahamian citizens.
But it is legal immigration, and in particular guest workers, that most rile the Bahamians we spoke with. Our resort was about 10 miles away from downtown Nassau so we spent a lot of time riding buses with Bahamians who were going to and from work. Many – certainly all those involved in the construction industry – loudly complained about Chinese guest workers nosing out local workers at major construction sites. This seemed confusing until we learned the level of Chinese investment in new hotels and resorts.
The best but clearly not only example is a resort called Baha Mar. Back in 2005 Prime Minister Perry Christie hoped to revitalize Cable Beach so he persuaded Dikran Izmirlian, a resident of the Lyford Cay billionaire’s enclave, to help. Izmirlian sank $900 million into the development of Baha Mar and recruited big-name partners like Caesars Resorts. But when the 2008 financial crisis hit, his partners balked. That left an opening for China Construction America, a subdivision of the State-owned construction contractor, to step in. Agreeing to a partnership that provided $2.45 billion in loans from the Export-Import Bank of China, Izmirlian and Prime Minister Christie also agreed that only workers from China would construct the resort. 8,150 Chinese guest workers built it.
Bahamians roundly criticized the deal but the prime minister sold the public on having a shot at some of the 5,000 new jobs that would be available when the resort was fully operational. Other controversies arose, too. Prime Minister Christie was accused of agreeing to sell or grant 500 Bahamian citizenships to Chinese investors connected with the project. He denied the accusation saying, “Bahamian citizenship is not for sale at any time, at any price, to anybody…. I find the very idea of citizenship-for-sale to be repugnant to all that I believe in and to all that I stand for as a Bahamian. Unlike the U.S. government, which hands out citizenship to EB-5 investors for as little as $500,000, at least Christie tried to stir up some righteous indignation for public consumption.
Unfortunately for Bahamians the resort, while virtually completed, is still not open. The ultimate cause is still under dispute but the project is in bankruptcy without any near-term solutions. This means that thousands of Bahamians who wanted to apply for the estimated 5,000 jobs, including many who returned from aboard seeking to work at home, got nothing.
It’s truly sad to drive by this magnificent resort knowing these facts. The huge property is fenced in with grass growing over areas where thousands of employee’s cars should be parked. Bad things can happen in any such endeavor but it’s clear that Bahamian government was more interested in protecting the interests of the financiers of Baha Mar than those of Bahamian construction workers. And we don’t know if the deal ultimately would have placed Chinese nationals in a percentage of the long-term jobs after it opened.
The Bahamian prime minister has a lot more latitude under the law to strike such a deal than would say, the President of the United States. But when you have a president like Barrack Obama, who refuses to implement the law, the results can be the same. Bahamian workers get the raw end of the deal just like American workers.
Updated: Fri, Aug 26th 2016 @ 11:20am EDT