NASSAU, Bahamas — Kenson Timothee was walking down the street when a uniformed officer asked him a question that sends Bahamians of Haitian descent like him into a panic these days: Do you have a passport? Mr. Timothee, who was born in the Bahamas to illegal Haitian immigrants, wound up jailed in immigration detention for six weeks. He is one of hundreds of people swept up in a fiercely debated new immigration policy in the Bahamas requiring everyone to hold a passport, a rule that human rights groups say unfairly targets people of Haitian descent. Mr. Timothee had proof that he was born in the Bahamas, but he had trouble obtaining his absentee father’s birth certificate so his application for Bahamian citizenship was never completed.
“I showed them that I had applied for citizenship, but they said that wasn’t good enough; as far as they are concerned, you are not Bahamian, you are Haitian, and you need to get deported,” Mr. Timothee said. “I don’t know anything about Haiti.” The Bahamian government has announced that by next fall, schools will be asked to ensure that every child has a student permit. The annual $125 permit and a passport with a residency stamp will be required even of children born in the Bahamas who do not hold Bahamian citizenship. The tough new policy echoes similar stances around the region, where new citizenship policies and anti-immigration measures have overwhelmingly affected Haitians, who are fleeing the hemisphere’s poorest country. The top court in the Dominican Republic ruled in 2013 that the children of illegal immigrants, even if they are born in the country, did not have the right to citizenship. Facing an international backlash, the Dominican government came up with a plan to prevent tens of thousands of people from becoming stateless.
In Turks and Caicos, a top immigration official vowed early in 2013 to hunt down and capture Haitians illegally in the country, promising to make their lives “unbearable.” In Brazil, politicians considered closing a border with Peru last year to stem the tide of Haitians, and in December, Canada announced that it would resume deporting Haitians. Here in the Bahamas, Mr. Timothee’s arrest coincided with stepped-up raids in predominantly Haitian shantytowns, where people who lacked passports or work permits were apprehended. When illegal immigrants ran from officers, the agents knocked down doors and took their children, and the photos of toddlers being carried away circulated widely. Since the policy took effect November 1, children born in the Bahamas have been deported with their parents, and others with Haitian-sounding names have been pulled from school classrooms, human rights observers said. In September, 241 Haitians were deported. Though 85 percent of Bahamians support the new policy, according to one poll, it has set off international condemnation. Citing some of the more alarming cases, including that of a Haitian woman who gave birth on an immigration detention center floor, several international groups have asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intervene.
Immigration officials in the Bahamas say their policies do not target any particular group, provide a better sense of who is living in their country, and could deter thousands of Haitian migrants from taking to the high seas each year in boats that often sink. But Annette M. Martínez Orabona, director of the Caribbean Institute for Human Rights, said the new policy fit into a broad context of immigration crackdowns in the region. “It’s all guided by discriminatory practices toward persons of Haitian origin,” she said. Children like Mr. Timothee’s 5-year-old daughter are in a precarious legal situation, she said. If nationality is passed down by blood and Mr. Timothee has no citizenship, then what passport would his daughter get? “The third generation is in a black hole,” Ms. Martínez said. In the Bahamas, the Constitution says that people born there to parents who were not citizens have the right to apply for citizenship between their 18th and 19th birthdays.
In a country where one in 10 Bahamians is of Haitian descent, many people never apply, and others face years of administrative delays. The new policy forces them to apply for a passport from their parents’ country of origin. “It’s a trick,” said Fred R. Smith, a civil rights lawyer in the Bahamas who has become the policy’s most vocal critic. “Once you apply for a Haitian passport, you’re already a citizen of another country, and you no longer fit into a category where the Bahamas is under an obligation to give you citizenship. You are no longer stateless.”