Bermuda: An island divided over immigration reform

Protesters march on the Bermuda House of Assembly during the immigration reform dispute in March. – PHOTO: DAVID SKINNER, THE ROYAL GAZETTE

Linking arms in front of Bermuda’s parliament building, a large group of committed protesters earlier this year shut down debate on a controversial immigration reform bill that promised to offer “pathways to status” for expatriates in the territory.

The proposals, by the standards of Cayman’s far more liberal immigration policies, were relatively mild.

But for a small island with a long and troubled history of racial strife, the bill, and the manner in which it was tabled, without broad public consultation, opened up old wounds and accusations of demographic gerrymandering from the incumbent government.

Civil unrest culminated in several days of labor strikes and protests before government eventually withdrew the bill and agreed to form a bipartisan committee to review the policies.

What was envisaged by the Bermuda Immigration and Protection Amendment Act 2016 was a route to permanent residency for long-term work permit holders and a route to full status for those on permanent residency certificates. The reforms also proposed measures to make it easier for children of permanent residents to gain status.

There is currently no formal process in Bermuda for foreign workers to get status other than through marriage.

Tabling the bill in February, the territory’s Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy suggested Bermuda was out of step with the rest of the world and with international human rights standards on the issue.

The bill proposed a Cayman-style solution, though with longer time lines than are in force here. Guest workers would become eligible for permanent residency after 15 years of living on the island, and eligible for full Bermudian status, including voting rights, after 20 years.

Special “transitional provision” would be made for those who had been resident in Bermuda for 20 years or more, Fahy said.

Pitching the reforms as a boost to the island’s ailing economy, Fahy said, “I urge everyone to engage in constructive dialogue in respect of these important changes and not engage in fear-mongering or misinformation campaigns. We are not talking about ‘opening floodgates.’ We are talking about what is the right thing to do, and I believe these changes should accordingly be fully embraced.”

Bermuda MP Suzann Roberts-Holshouser is denied entrance to the House of Assembly after protesters formed a human barrier to shut down debate on an immigration bill. – PHOTO: DAVID SKINNER, THE ROYAL GAZETTE
Bermuda MP Suzann Roberts-Holshouser is denied entrance to the House of Assembly after protesters formed a human barrier to shut down debate on an immigration bill. – PHOTO: DAVID SKINNER, THE ROYAL GAZETTE

They were not.

Rallied by opposition politicians and labor unions, Bermudians came out in large numbers to protest the changes and call for much wider consultation on the issue.

Though Fahy suggested the move would initially impact only a few hundred people, opponents of the bill disputed those figures and suggested the long-term impact of the reforms would be to create a conveyer belt of new Bermudians that would ultimately usurp and displace the resident population.

An additional factor was thrown into the mix. The ruling One Bermuda Alliance, the opposition suggested, was trying to create a new bloc of voters that would help it get re-elected.

Walton Brown, the opposition Progressive Labor Party’s principal spokesman on the issue, immediately responded to the announcement of the bill by calling for civil disobedience.

In a comment that proved prophetic, he warned, “If the minister seeks to throw the gauntlets down to the Bermuda public, he will get an appropriate response.”

Brown later articulated a more thorough response, saying the issue was so contentious and so important that a collaborative, bipartisan approach was needed.

He acknowledged that some reform of the immigration laws was necessary, but said there should be a cap on the number of permanent residency and status grants.

He chided the government for tabling the legislation without broad public consultation and raised concerns about the racial consequences, noting “white residents will be the overwhelming beneficiaries of the law.”

The protests that erupted shortly after were divided along racial lines. A large crowd of mostly black protesters marched through the streets of the capital city, Hamilton, and camped on the lawns of the parliament buildings, eventually blocking politicians from entering the chamber to debate the bill.

A majority white crowd held a rival candlelit vigil in support of the changes.
Ultimately, it was the group opposed to the bill that celebrated amid scenes of jubilation on the lawn of parliament when the announcement came that the reforms were being withdrawn.

A working group has been set up, and the least controversial aspect of the reforms, those affecting the children of status holders, will be brought back to parliament this month.

Other aspects of the bill could be reintroduced in future, but few believe a happy compromise can be achieved without further disruption.

Status holders

Ian Smith, a systems and IT worker, who was born in Canada and moved to Bermuda in 1985, is in a small category of foreign workers who has full Bermudian status, though he had to go through the courts to get it.

Smith was one of 277 people awarded status after a 2014 court ruling that people resident in Bermuda prior to 1989 who had permanent residency certificates, had a right to apply for status. The court decision and the possible threat of future decisions from the court was cited by the government as one of the reasons for pushing ahead with reform – leaving immigration issues in the realm of politicians, not the judiciary.

Smith rejects the notion that those granted status, mostly whites, would vote as a bloc for the One Bermuda Alliance, a party which has the reputation of drawing the majority of its support from Bermuda’s white population.

He has sympathy for the concerns of working class Bermudians, with the country’s economy in a tailspin, but believes that long-term residents deserve status.

“People who have lived under the work permit system for 20 years are, by now, genuine members of the community. During the recent debate, we had the bizarre circumstance of people chanting ‘Equality! Justice!’ demanding that people be denied voting rights,” he said.

As with a lot of issues in Bermuda, the community appears divided on racial lines, Smith believes, with whites generally for reform and blacks concerned that they fought hard for political equality and power in a society that maintained segregation until the 1960s and do not want to see it diluted.

While the strength and passion of the protests, which involved several days of labor withdrawal, may suggest otherwise, Smith believes there is broad support for some sort of reform.

“Even in that emotional environment, a majority of the protesters were more about protesting the process than the actual reforms …. Straw polls show significant support for the reforms, even among protesters, but it will be hot times in Bermuda, and we will be very lucky if we do not have further disruptions and protests,”

That assessment was reflected by Walton Brown in a recent speech to the Bermuda parliament, when he insisted the opposition had never rejected the concept of reform. What they want, he said, is for the Bermudian people to have a seat at the table.

As the discussion continues, some are calling for Bermuda’s leaders to look to Cayman for a solution.

The Royal Gazette, Bermuda’s daily newspaper, wrote in an editorial last month, “Cayman’s experience shows how immigration policies can help a small-island community to climb out of an economic hole.

“It’s food for thought as we in Bermuda face our own immigration conundrum of how to reconcile our strong protectionist instincts with the urgent need to address the stark reality of our demographic and economic situation.”

In Cayman, where immigration remains a frustrating and contentious issue for many expatriates, it is unusual to be highlighted as a model of success.

Nick Joseph, an attorney in Cayman who specialized in immigration, notes that Cayman’s system, while less than perfect, is more advanced, in terms of openness, than Bermuda’s.

“In Cayman, the road to status exists but is snarled in traffic. In Bermuda, it seems, the road has yet to be built.”