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Shake-up at Immigration

The Department of Immigration, which has been mired in controversy in recent months, is set to get a leadership change with Acting Director of Immigration Keturah Ferguson to be placed on leave and then retired, according to high level sources familiar with the developments.

The Nassau Guardian was told that Deputy Director Dwight Beneby was also being considered for or offered a package for early retirement.

Reportedly, former Director of Immigration William Pratt is being brought back to fill that post once again.

There were no formal announcement of the anticipated changes up to last night.

The moves will come days after Prime Minister Philip Davis announced that the embattled Keith Bell was reassigned as minister of labor and immigration, and is the new minister of housing and urban renewal.

Alfred Sears, who served as minister of works and utilities, is the new immigration minister.

Davis also reiterated on Sunday that the government is conducting a “comprehensive review of immigration procedures with the goal of strengthening them, so that Bahamians can be confident that the rules promote efficiency and fairness”.

He first announced the review in July amid calls from the official opposition for Bell to resign as immigration minister after he swore in a woman and her two children as citizens of The Bahamas at her husband’s funeral.

In July, it was also revealed that months earlier when immigration authorities discovered a group of Chinese workers at the British Colonial Hotel in Downtown Nassau without any legal status to be in the country, Bell ordered their release from custody.

The leak of Department of Immigration/Ministry of Immigration correspondence into the public space highlighted tensions that were seemingly brewing between Bell and immigration officials.

One such correspondence was a January 18, 2023 minute written by Ferguson to Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Immigration Cecilia Strachan about Bell’s directive to release the Chinese workers.

The correspondence references an apprehension exercise conducted on January 17 by the Immigration Enforcement Unit.

Referencing Bell’s directive to release the Chinese, Ferguson wrote, “While I am cognizant of the present economic climate and the lack of jobs for Bahamians, I find it very disconcerting when directives of this nature are continuously received.

“This type of action is demoralizing to the immigration officers, in particular, who are trying to do their jobs as mandated by the law.”

She also said the matter raised human trafficking concerns, and a security breach.

“It also appears that the expatriate has more rights in The Bahamas than Bahamians,” Ferguson wrote. “Moreover, this is also a show of disrespect to the chair of director of immigration.

“To this end, I believe that a better outcome would have been realized if the officers were allowed to take the persons into custody on last evening and process the individuals, so that we would have known who was in the group and possibly if anyone was being victimized or perhaps trafficked.”

Weeks after that correspondence was placed into the public domain by Opposition Leader Michael Pintard, he revealed another leaked immigration document.

In August, Pintard read the contents of an email written by Ferguson to Bell and Strachan on July 13, 2022 about people being sworn in as citizens of The Bahamas without renouncing their citizenship of other countries.

The email read, “Good afternoon PS Strachan and Minister Bell: It has been brought to my attention that the department has been swearing-in individuals without renunciation, contrary to the requirements of The Bahamas Nationality Act, Chapter 190. Please see attached.

“Kindly advise under what legal grounds are we covered by not following the law. I await your urgent response.”

The day after the email was made public, the Ministry of Labour and Immigration released a statement saying the policies currently in force at the Department of Immigration concerning renunciations have been in place for over a decade without change or amendment.

“The present administration has made no changes to these policies,” the ministry said. “The granting of citizenship continues to follow the existing laws and policies governing the Department of Immigration.”

In July, the prime minister said in a statement, “… public trust in the enforcement of our immigration laws is not just important to me, but essential. I want to be absolutely clear about that.”

It is not clear who leaked the documents to the opposition leader.

In July, Davis said, “… I  want everyone to understand that when civil servants share the names and personal details of individuals from files in the custody of their department, they are in violation of the law, and they have breached the public trust.

“People who share their private information with the government of The Bahamas, in departments across our ministries, should be able to do so with confidence that they will not find their names being shouted at press conferences or thrown around to score political points.”

Members of the official opposition had placed on the agenda of the House of Assembly a series of questions related to immigration and citizenship matters.

Parliament was prorogued on August 12, wiping clean that agenda.

Pintard has indicated he intends to place the questions he raised back on the agenda after the new session of Parliament begins on October 4.