Many see it as mainly a United States or European dilemma. But unfortunately, in the largely black and brown region of the Caribbean, the same sort of xenophobic sentiments expressed by some Americans towards immigrants in the U.S. also exists in many regional countries.
In the midst of the catastrophic Hurricane Dorian, which unleashed its Category 5 strength on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands in The Bahamas, the conversation has quietly turned to the hot button issue of illegal immigration in the country.
Why? Because Abaco was home to many Haitian immigrants, some undocumented, who lived in the Haitian shantytowns called The Mudd and Pigeon Peas in Great Abaco Island’s Marsh Harbor area. It is unclear how many were undocumented.
What is known, according to data compiled by W.J. Fielding, et al. from 2005 for The Stigma of Being “Haitian” in The Bahamas from The College of The Bahamas Research Journal, is that Haitians represented conservatively 16.9 percent of the population on Abaco. Haitian children accounted for some 31.3 percent of those enrolled in schools on the island. Overall, they represent about 80,000 of the 350,000 people across The Bahamas.
As Dorian receded from the island last month, and the reality of the widespread devastation came into view for the world, it became quickly obvious that the shantytowns many of these Haitians called home, far away from the flashy tourist resorts, had completely disappeared.
Nassau Guardian reporters on the ground in Abaco reported seeing several dead bodies in The Mudd area even as shell-shocked residents, like Haitian born Aliana Alexis, stood grief stricken on the concrete slab of what was left of her home, arms outstretched, head raised to heaven as if asking silently: “Why me God?”
Geoffrey Farquharson, who practices law in Nassau, told the Catholic Diocese newspaper in Miami that the settlements were built illegally on waste ground because nobody had good use for that land.
“When the hurricane came it was obliterated — many there were completely off-the-grid persons living in the shadows with no passport or papers,” he was quoted as saying.
Dorval Darlier, Haitian charge d’affaires in The Bahamas, brought the issue of illegal immigration more into the spotlight on Sept. 5 outside the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) headquarters in Nassau. There to offer his country’s help to get supplies to desperate Haitians in Abaco, he urged many fellow Haitians who are in the country “illegally” to call the consulate for help and not be concerned with fears of deportation.
“It is not about fear right now … These people, they are here. It is not about who is legal or illegal. It is about helping people,” he was quoted as saying in the Guardian.
But Darlier’s most profound statements followed. “The tragedy transcends issues of nationality and origin. in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian,” he stated. “It’s not about Bahamian. It’s not about Haitian. It’s not about the flag color, as the prime minister said. It’s all about helping.”
Darlier is right. In a country where the attitude of many, including the government, has been hardening towards Haitians and especially those undocumented in recent years, one can only pray that all storm victims, legal or not, will receive the same level of support and help that transcends nationality and status. And, most of all, that the government of The Bahamas may find it prudent in the weeks and months to come, to grant the undocumented Caribbean brothers and sisters among them some sort of pathway to earned legalization.
After all, we are supposedly one Caribbean aren’t we?