Johnson warns Immigration permits at stake for breach of COVID-19 orders

Johnson warns Immigration permits at stake for breach of COVID-19 orders
Minister of Legal Affairs, Yamacraw MP Elsworth Johnson speaks with Eyewitness News outside the House of Assembly. (file photo)

Repatriations suspended, those charged could be released with deferred sentencing

Minister says immigration officers involved community engagement

NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Minister of Immigration Elsworth Johnson yesterday warned permit holders in The Bahamas who breach the COVID-19 emergency orders, inclusive of the 24-hour curfew and social distancing measures, that there will be consequences, including a block on the renewal of their permits or status.

“Fundamental to everything that we were doing is to really say to persons in every community, including Bahamians is that you can’t congregate the way they were congregating,” said Johnson, who was responding to questions from Eyewitness News regarding the arrest of a large group of church squatters in Abaco over the weekend.

“In so far as we are still expected to enforce the immigration laws of The Bahamas — to bring those things to people’s attention — we are saying to persons who may have status by way of work permit, permanent residency or whatever have you: If you are found in breach of this order, we are going to take all of your information and at the end of the day — separate and apart from facing a charge before the courts — we will vigorously push for the revocation of your status.

“This is a worldwide serious matter and if a non-national is affected, a Bahamian is affected. We are all in this boat, for everybody in The Bahamas, together. We want everybody to act reasonably and properly in this time and follow the orders…”

On Saturday morning, immigration officers arrested 109 people squatting at a church in Marsh Harbour, Abaco, that had previously been used to shelter displaced Hurricane Dorian survivors.

Officials said there were grave concerns about emergency COVID-19 measures being adhered to, namely social distancing and proper hygiene and sanitation practices, as well as adherence to the 24-hour curfew.

Johnson said the department understands that some have nowhere to go and officers will exercise “common sense and due diligence” in enforcing the emergency orders.

He said the department will uphold the rights and dignity of every resident; however, he reiterated The Bahamas maintains the right to “self-determine”.

“What we are doing right now is trying to preserve the life of every person in The Bahamas,” the minister said.

“As we go along, we still have to guard the borders. We still have to ensure that nobody comes into the country who should not be here. We still have to be aware that while we are right-thinking persons, there are persons who are not right-thinking.”

Johnson was also asked how the department has been processing illegal migrants.

He said given the limitation of the courts and emergency orders that mandate social distancing in an effort to prevent local spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), illegal migrants who are arrested could be released on bail to avoid sending additional people to government holding facilities, including the Department of Correctional Services.

He said the practice is nothing new, though it may not be an accustomed measure to some.

“We know that the courts are now operating in accordance with the order and so, they have cut back,” Johnson said.

“And so, we fully appreciate that even if we take persons to the courts now, we ask for suspended sentences — to take effect after there is a decline because you can’t send persons out of the country.

“What we also did was have the order read in Creole to the communities to help to educate them because we know one of our roles is to assist with educating.

He added: “Obviously, we have to practice social distancing at the detention center, so it makes no sense to take you into custody, but we have every possible piece of information on you. We would release you and let you know that we will proceed by way of summons and if they ever try to make an application, we have all their fingerprints and everything.

“They know when things ease up — and this is not strange, as you see it happening in the U.S. If you cannot prosecute someone within a reasonable time, they release you into the community and tell you to come back. These are the times if which we find ourselves.”

He said the same can apply to Bahamians who are charged for breaching the emergency orders.

The minister said the department understands that some have nowhere to go and officers will exercise “common sense and due diligence” in enforcing the emergency orders.

Johnson insisted the mandate of the department remains the same, but officers have been sensitized to the circumstances the nation and residents face, and have been actively performing community engagement to educate more vulnerable communities, including those in shantytowns across the country.