13 May 2016

The Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform for Bermuda

Official Statement of Walton Brown, JP, MP | Bermuda Progressive Labour Party  on 7th March 2016 as he led the motion to establish a Joint-Select Committee on Comprehensive Immigration Reform. The motion was defeated. A historic blockade of Parliament followed, and with the people united, the Government committed to a process leading to such reform.



Mr. Walton Brown:

WHEREAS the public welfare is now challenged by a proposed amendment to the immigration law, and the likelihood for growing and sustained unrest increases daily; and

WHEREAS there was a need for an inclusive approach for the betterment of Bermuda on such law, accompanied by the movement away from brinkmanship dispositions;
BE IT RESOLVED that, pursuant to Part IV of the Parliament Act 1957, a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee be appointed:
1. to examine the wide range of issues involved in comprehensive immigration reform;
2. to propose for the consideration of Parliament a set of comprehensive immigration reform measures; and
3. to submit its report within six months;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this report be consulted by Members of the Legislature prior to any Bill being tabled dealing with the subject matter.

The Speaker: All right. Thank you.

Mr. Walton Brown: And I further request, Mr. Speaker, that we be allowed to debate this forthwith, as is provided for under Standing Order 9, section (3), (4) and (5).

Mr. Walton Brown: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. And I appreciate your ruling to allow us to address the matter that is of fundamental and urgent importance.

Mr. Speaker, we are on a precipice. There is an increase in the volume, there is an increase in the level of agitation on this matter. This is a matter, immigration reform, that has been fundamentally divisive in this country. And we need to find a way in which we can tone down both the direction and the level at which these issues are being addressed.

And so, Mr. Speaker, this motion is an opportunity for this House to demonstrate real leadership, bipartisan leadership, on a matter that is tearing this country apart.

So, Mr. Speaker, let us talk first about the importance of a bipartisan approach. For three years, there has been a call from this side for a bipartisan approach on this issue. For three years, that has been ignored. And with the series of proposed amendments that have yet to be tabled, we run the risk of becoming unstable in this country.

I have heard Members from the Government side say on many occasions that they were elected to lead, and therefore they will do so. It is true, Mr. Speaker, that the One Bermuda Alliance was duly elected in December of 2012. They have the mandate from the population, from the electorate, to lead. But they do not, Mr. Speaker, have a mandate to lead in the way they are leading on immigration reform.

I say this because this Government made an express promise to the people of the country that they would not do what they are currently doing, in their pre-election statements. They made a repeated promise to the people of this country that they would not do what they are proposing to do now. So they do not have the mandate to do it. They cannot argue that they have a mandate.

Secondly, Mr. Speaker, in the absence of any real dialogue with key parties in this country, I pose the question to the Government: What is the urgency? Why must this be done right now and to this extent? There has been no answer from them. The position that the Government is taking today is completely opposite to what they said in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The way to address it in a mature, responsible way is through bipartisanship.

There was a danger, Mr. Speaker, of unilateralism. There was a danger of one side doing everything at once and doing it fully, without regard for opposing or competing viewpoints. This Government has taken one unilateral position. It is not healthy on such an issue, Mr. Speaker, because there are unilateral positions on the other side, as well. The Government says they will give out status grants to every single person who qualifies or who has been here for a certain period of time.

One position on the outside, Mr. Speaker, is that no such Bermuda status grant be issued until such time as Bermuda becomes a sovereign state. That too is a unilateral position. So what happens when the PLP regain power and decide to eschew a bipartisan approach to mimic what this Government is doing? Do you want to have two unilateral approaches to immigration reform? You would have a series of unilateral approaches that do not benefit the country. It will send nerves of unease in the international business community. It would have those people whom we have invited to come to work here have a level of confusion about the direction of government. And it just does not make good parliamentary sense to have large swings in terms of policy.

So, unilateralism is an unhealthy approach in a democratic society. Yes, you won the government. Yes, you have a mandate. But you do not have a mandate for this. So let sound minds prevail. Let us commit to a bipartisan committee so that the two unilateral positions can interact and come up with what has to be a compromise solution. Everyone on this side embraces the notion of compromise solution. Yes, you have heard unilateral positions. You have heard positions way on one side. But you have heard it all around. In a committee, there has to be a give and take.

And what we are calling for is for this Government to allow us to step back from the precipice, allow us to engage in a serious, mature discussion, and not an arrogant disposition which says, We were elected to lead. Therefore, we will do so.

Mr. Speaker, any discussion on any critical issue in Bermuda that is burdened down by historical precedents has to emanate from a position of respect and understanding. Respect and understanding are key components of what a government should be doing. What Government is proposing demonstrates no respect and no understanding for the impact of the past.

Let me just share an analogy that was raised Friday on the grounds of Parliament by my friend, Toby Butterfield. She talked about cacti and daisies in a desert. Cacti thrive in a desert. They love the arid, dry atmosphere and the boundless sun. For them, the weather is good. Daisies do not do too well in a desert. They complain about the heat. They complain about the lack of water. And if the cacti rule, they say, Everything is fine. What are the daisies complaining about? You have no empathy. You have no understanding for the pain and the hardship of the daisy.

The difference, Mr. Speaker, between daisies, cacti and people—is that daisies cannot rise up and do anything. But people can. And when you have what are seen to be unjust laws, unjust proposals, people will engage in civil disobedience to resist. And when there is a pattern of disrespect, a pattern of a failure to understand, you will see greater and greater civil disobedience.

No one wants to do that. But I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, every single person whom I have talked to who has engaged in civil disobedience understands fully that when you break the law, there are consequences. And so, when you saw that protest at the East Broadway last week, every single person there was prepared to be arrested, so severely and so generally do they understand the importance of these issues.

So you cannot go forward with legislation of such a magnitude without an understanding, without a respect for the past. We know that everyone knows, especially because the Minister responsible for Immigration said a few weeks ago that he understands the legacy of the past when it comes to Immigration policy. He appreciates that it was used for political purposes. He appreciates that there was a racial component to legislation in the past regarding Immigration. So, how can you go from that appreciation and understanding of the 1960s and 1970s, adopt proposals on a unilateral scale that embrace elements, which contain elements of the 1960s and 1970s and say that, This is what we think is right, and we do not care what anyone else has to say?

You cannot have public meetings where your public meeting is designed only to tell the public what you intend to do, as opposed to getting input from the public to shape the direction of government. This law was drafted months ago. So, we need that, 
Mr. Speaker.

We are standing here today offering this Government an opportunity through the parliamentary process to engage in a mature discussion based on genuine bipartisanship where, by the way, Mr. Speaker, the Government will control the committee! The Government will have the majority of members on any such committee that is set up.

There have been many comments about what is meant by comprehensive immigration reform. I find that a little bit disingenuous, Mr. Speaker, because the Government side has been fully informed on a multitude of occasions what the elements of comprehensive immigration reform are. But for the benefit of the public, Mr. Speaker, for the benefit of the public, I will highlight some of the key issues that are a necessary component of any comprehensive immigration reform.

Let us take first the issue of Bermuda status. Up until 1989, there were only 40 discretionary grants of Bermuda status awarded. Other Bermuda status grants were by birth or by marriage. And then, of course, you later had the relevant section in the Immigration and Protection Act 1956, section 22(1)(d), which provided a provision for people with a family connection. So, the government abandoned that. This Government said no status grants were on their electoral agenda, but now we have it.

But how would a discussion go in a committee? In a parliamentary committee, we would have to answer a few questions. What should be the process by which further Bermuda status grants are to be awarded? What should be the criteria? Should you have to speak English to get status, or not? How many should be given out a year? I know the Government was paying someone to fill out applications for people who did not speak English. Some people might say, maybe you should speak English in order to get Bermudian status.

The point is, Mr. Speaker, a bipartisan committee will say, We believe “X” number should be awarded a year. Here are the criteria. Here is the process by which it should be done. We do not reject the awarding of Bermuda status in and of itself. That was not our earlier position. We recognise that there has to be some kind of compromise. This Government has refused to even talk about numbers. Every country in the world has an idea, or some controls over, how many citizenships they award, how many permanent residence certificates [PRCs] they award. This Government has refused to even discuss the issue.

And in refusing to discuss the issue, it begs the question, Why? Why not? What is the hardship? What is the harm? So, a bipartisan committee would look at the issue of Bermuda status, decide on criteria, decide on numbers, decide on processes that will be involved.

Secondly, PRCs. We recognise that PRCs are a category of people who should be given certain rights. And we should talk about how that could be extended. It is the Progressive Labour Party that created the category of PRCs. We brought that in to provide a measure of security to people who have been here for the long term. But going forward, what should be the process in place? The only current law in place for PRCs, in my view, is racist, sexist and class-biased. I think it needs to be abolished. But a bipartisan committee will look at the current legislation regarding PRCs and come up with a more compromised approach. How many PRCs should we issue each year? By what criteria? And what rights should be attached to them?

There is one view which says the current situation regarding PRCs is inappropriate, saying, How could you give someone the right to live and work in a country without work permit control, and yet tell them they can only buy property at certain bands? Some will see that as inconsistent with the rights of someone living in a country. So we do not have firm positions. We are submitting to a bipartisan committee so that these issues can be addressed in the spirit of compromise, Mr. Speaker. We want to avoid unilateralism, because, Mr. Speaker, unilateralism is not healthy in a country as divided as we are today.

Mr. Speaker, this bipartisan committee will sort out what is a right and what is a privilege. What are the rights for Bermudians, and what is a privilege for Bermudians? What is the right for a PRC and what is the privilege for a PRC? I hear a lot of talk about human rights issues and so forth. What right does someone have who comes here on a work permit that the employer renews repeatedly? There are a multitude of views on that, Mr. Speaker. We know that there are certain rights enshrined by law, equal protection under the law. But what right does that person have to permanent status, and what right does that person have to Bermuda status? A committee can sort that out!

What you have to date is a Minister—I am not even sure which technical people the Minister was using—but you have the Minister who has made such decisions and been supported by Cabinet. Bermudians have rights in their own country. Should Bermudians come first in their own country? I think everyone who loves this country would say Bermudians should come first in their own country. That is not to negate the right of anyone else whom we invite here on work permits and so forth. But we have to assess it. Again, you have the parliamentary committee to do so. It avoids a unilateral approach on such matters.

Another issue of great concern is that of the family unit. No one on this side wants to see policies and laws in place which have the effect of dividing families and giving families different political rights or a different political status. It is inappropriate for one person in a family to have Bermuda status, someone else to be a PRC or be on a work permit. So we want to see common political status. We have not even had that discussion with the Government because they refuse to talk about it. They refuse to engage in dialogue. And if you go by all the rhetoric, racist comments or provocative comments that you hear and read about in social media, you would think Bermuda is about to be at war with itself. 

So I appreciate, Mr. Speaker, your recognising the urgency of this.
But when it comes to the family unit, we need to find a mature and responsible solution so that families do not find themselves divided on this issue of different political status. This is our opportunity. This is the opportunity for this Parliament to demonstrate leadership that transcends what many see as a more narrowly defined political agenda that has less to do with the human rights, has less to do with rights of long-term residents, but more to do with a more crass political motivation.

Mr. Speaker, this bipartisan committee will address a very delicate issue about what right and what privileges people should have who are born here. Should everyone born in Bermuda have Bermuda status, as is the case with citizenship in the United States or Canada? Or should we look at a modification based on what you see in the UK, Germany, and other countries, where being born in a country does not automatically grant you citizenship rights?

Our policies have to be determined based on our circumstances. And so, those who wish to refer to the European Convention on Human Rights should read it very carefully. Do not just read the part about the importance of the family unit, because everyone in this Parliament I know recognises the importance of the family unit. But what the European Convention on Human Rights says is that any policies you advance should be mindful of local circumstances.

And, you know, there was an actual provision in the European Convention which says that, if the administering powers (i.e., one of the Colonial powers, like Britain, the Netherlands and France) are to apply or to extend this convention to their territories - in France, the department. In Holland, the Netherlands, it is one of their integrated territories in the ABC countries, in the Caribbean, or the British Overseas Territories. They have to be mindful of the small sizes of these populations. That is the European Convention on Human Rights.

So, what should be the criteria in place? At one point, we had 12,000 work permit holders in Bermuda. If 6,000 had children born in Bermuda, would this Government say they should all be granted Bermuda status? What should be the policy? What should be the legislation in place? Any legislation in place has to be mindful of what is a right, what is a privilege, what are the rights of  
Bermudians, and the rights of those who are here on work permits.
These are delicate issues, Mr. Speaker. They are sensitive issues. We are sensitive to that sensitivity. And we believe that a bipartisan approach is the only way to properly and fully address these issues. In the absence of bipartisanship, Mr. Speaker, this country is going to go through a period of turmoil and unease, and that is not good for anyone.

Intimately connected to the whole question of PRCs Bermuda status is that of work permit policy. I do not know how anyone could not see work permit policy as being an integral component of this whole notion of moving toward a lessening of restrictions with respect to PRCs and Bermuda status. Work permit policy is enshrined in the Bermuda Immigration and Protection Act 1956. So you cannot separate work permit policy from immigration policy.
Mr. Speaker, there are some very interesting components in the Immigration and Protection Act and in the work permit policy that tie in directly to longevity of stay and opportunities for Bermudians.

I will give you a couple of examples, Mr. Speaker, that this bipartisan committee will have to look at. We already have in immigration policy a provision that requires nannies to be paid a minimum wage of $10 an hour. It is minimal. It is not enough to live on. But at least it is a minimum base wage. That base salary, Mr. Speaker, is not sufficient to attract locals to apply for those positions. Because when you juxtapose the very low salary, the very low wage, with the working conditions, it is contrived to ensure that Bermudians do not apply for that position. And so, you will have someone in a position for five, ten or fifteen years precisely because no Bermudian is going to apply for it. And the employer knows that.

So, we have to consider in this bipartisan committee what is an appropriate wage or salary for workers, because it is that, Mr. Speaker, that is being used to deny Bermudians opportunities and lead to the denial of jobs that leads to those staying here for 15 or 20 years, working as nannies or in other areas.

When you have hospitality sectors paying people $5.25 an hour, you are not offering a living wage. You are contriving a set of employment circumstances that effectively deny Bermudians jobs. We do not have a liveable wage. And you cannot look at this apart from immigration policy, where the employer says, Oh, well. I’ll see how much of the gratuities I am going to share with my staff this week, where you rely on the good graces of the employer. Now, the employer has an incentive to hire only foreign workers in certain categories because employers do not need to pay pension for work permit holders. If you have 10, 15 or 20 employees, you are going to structure your business to maximise [using] foreign workers because it is reducing your cost. It is a basic economic decision that employers make.

So you cannot extricate work permit policy or wage scales from any proper discussion of immigration policy, Mr. Speaker. This has to be an item involved in immigration reform, comprehensive reform. It has to be an item that is discussed by this committee. These are some of the issues, Mr. Speaker, that we need to look at. Every time a PRC certificate is issued, that job has been removed from work permit control. That job is no longer open or available to a Bermudian to apply for.
A Government has to be sensitive to these kinds of issues when you have 3,000 people unemployed. And I have heard some very disparaging remarks about people who have been out protesting and so forth. The reality is that those who are out of work today, Mr. Speaker, fill the gamut in terms of qualifications, experience and skills. It is not one single class. I have heard the group described as a mob, uneducated people. Only those who have contempt for the people use such language, Mr. Speaker. And when you use such contempt, people respond accordingly.
We have a volatile environment. We do not need to have a volatile environment. We have to have an approach that is focused on compromise. Compromise has to be a critical part.
I listened to a speech by President Obama a few weeks ago. Everyone says they love Obama here. Everyone here says they love President Obama. And everyone wants to embrace his approach to politics. And each side accuse the other side of being like the Republicans. But let us take a lesson from Obama. He made a speech a few weeks ago. One very powerful statement he made, among many powerful statements. He said (and I quote—well, I paraphrase. I may not get it exactly right.) He said, If you cannot compromise, you cannot lead. Let me repeat that: If you cannot compromise, you cannot lead. Because no leadership, no matter how many votes you have, can decide to act in a unilateral manner on all major policy simply because you have the votes. Having the votes in Parliament does not mean you get the support of the people.

When Parliament refuses to act in ways that reflect, respect and respond to the public interest, the public has a right to reject what Parliament does. The [people] have a right to reject parliamentary measures and resort to extra-parliamentary measures.
But here we are, Mr. Speaker. We have a sacred duty to respond in ways that are meaningful and respectful and reduce the tension. This is our opportunity today. This is our opportunity today, Mr. Speaker.
One of the other items for discussion on this committee for bipartisan reform will be to look at the category of PRCs who are investors into Bermuda. Should we create a category for the super-wealthy who are either going to invest a significant sum of money or buy a significant property? We already have laws on the books which say that if you buy a property of a particular value, in a particular area, you get the right of residence. We have that already on the books for one property that I know of.
But consider wealthy individuals who are not interested in coming to work in Bermuda, but they may set up a business and hire people. What provisions can or should we make for these investors, who will bring money into the country, who will develop new businesses? Let us forget about the job makers. I have been a critic of the Job Makers Act since it was first tabled. And yes, you could talk about whom it was tabled under. These individuals are not job makers. I do not know why it was called a Job Makers Act, right? The investments of these companies came from the mutual fund, the hedge fund. These guys (because they are mostly guys—it is a very sexist sort of enterprise, this segment of international business) do not invest money. They benefit from the investments of others.
So if you want to create pathways to PRCs for the investors, talk to the guys who are putting up the money, not the guys who benefit from getting the high-paying jobs, because they are not creating the jobs. Yes, they have a big economic impact. But the Job Makers Act is a misnomer, and we need to look at providing, or at least assessing, what can be done for those individuals who are truly bringing money into Bermuda, who are creating these opportunities for growth, and particularly those who might be looking at new areas of investment. 

So these are some [ideas], Mr. Speaker.
The last issue that I will raise that I think could be a matter for discussion with this bipartisan committee is the notion of equal political rights for everyone who has Bermuda status. Because right now, Mr. Speaker, those who have Bermuda status, we do not have equal political rights. And some may be confused by what I mean. The reality is that an American who acquires Bermuda status can sit and serve in this Parliament. If, on the other hand, I decided to go and [I] take on American citizenship, I would be ineligible to sit in this Parliament.
So how can we, in the twenty-first century, want to move full steam ahead looking at this series of immigration reform and not tackle the issue of equal political status?
I know. It is based on an old colonial model, because our Constitution says that if anyone has sworn allegiance to another party other than the Queen of England, then you cannot serve in our Parliament. So why should I be denied the right to take out citizenship in a non-commonwealth country unless I am prepared to give up my seat in Parliament, whereas someone who comes from a non-commonwealth country can do so?
Just for the record, Mr. Speaker, I have no intention of taking out citizenship in any other country. I have no desire. I travel wherever I want to travel. I do not have a British passport; I have a Colonial passport. Let us just get that straight. And as I said before, Mr. Speaker, I would renounce my British citizenship tomorrow if it did not render me stateless. So I am caught in a bind. I am British because they passed a law.
But here there is a principle involved of unequal political rights. So, for all the comments by this Government about human rights and so forth, you have never once heard this Government talk about the human rights and equal political rights for those current Bermuda status holders.
So, Mr. Speaker, I have outlined eight or nine items that could and should legitimately be addressed by a bipartisan committee of this House and another Chamber. This is a sincere effort at taking everyone back from brinkmanship politics. This is our opportunity today, Mr. Speaker. 

For three years we have called for it. We watched the Government engage in a series of measures with respect to immigration reform, which has demonstrated callous disregard for the legacy of the past, callous disregard for the sincere efforts toward a bipartisan approach. And even amidst all of that, Mr. Speaker, against that backdrop, we stand before you today, we stand before Parliament today and we stand before the people of this country today, Mr. Speaker, to say, Let us engage in a sincere bipartisan effort. 

These are the items we have tabled. We want to get away from brinkmanship. And we are saying to the Government, Let us do it for the people of this country. Let us do it for those who hold work permits in this country, Mr. Speaker. We do not want to see things further unravel.
I know there is a lot of cynicism all around this country. But we are united on this front. We want to see a demonstrated commitment. This is our opportunity, Mr. Speaker. This is [possibly the] last opportunity for Parliament to show it can rise above the divisiveness that has been so inherent in what we have been doing since 2012. It is an opportunity to show genuine leadership. But also, Mr. Speaker, it is an opportunity to show genuine love and concern for the future of our country.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.