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2005-12-01 15:49:30

Ingraham Wants Visa Debate

Opposition wants to focus on visa racketeering schemes allegedly operating through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Leader of the Free National Movement Hubert Ingraham has asked the government to facilitate a debate in the House of Assembly on the question of entry visas granted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Haitian and Chinese nationals.

Mr Ingraham wants the debate to address the allegations made by former FNM chairman Carl Bethel who is now an FNM senator, an intervention on the matter made by Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitcheel in the House of Assembly yesterday and all matters connected with the issuance of visas, work permits and other permits related to foreigners working or living in The Bahamas.

Mr. Ingraham's request followed a detailed intervention by Mr. Mitchell, who addressed personal allegations made about him and his conduct as a minister.

The first allegation Mr. Mitchell addressed was related to the visa racketeering schemes operating through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He said that if there were such schemes he was not aware of them, and urged the opposition to show the evidence demonstrating the allegations, which are now the subject of a police investigation.

To the second allegation, of an "alarming" upsurge in visas granted to Haitians and Chinese, Mr. Mitchell said that he did not intend to deal with the matter in any detail because the information was still being disaggregated at the Ministry, but added that there was probably an innocent explanation for these figures.

He pointed to a report indicating that athletes attending the CAC Games in July were in excess of 100 from Haiti; and athletes participating in soccer tournaments in The Bahamas in 2004 and 2005 from Haiti were in excess of several hundred.

The opposition has alleged a "dramatic rise" in the number of entry visas issued to Haitians based on figures that reveal that in 2002 there was a total of 100-plus non-immigrant visas issued to Haitian nationals, the FNM's last year in officer; and by December 2004 that number had grown to 2,000 visas issued every year by the PLP government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mr Mitchell said Mr. Bethel sought to mislead the Bahamian public when he charged that visas were being issued in bulk based upon sponsorship or recommendation of certain politically connected individuals and that visas were issued without proper identification and photographs or were signed by applicants with only an X.

"One piece of evidence was a copy of an e-mail communication dated Thursday, May 6, 2004 from me to the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr Patricia Rodgers," said Mr Mitchell.

The minister said that the document did not show that the he forwarded the e-mail to the permanent secretary under the heading "Re: Your Approval" and that it was "duly" approved on May 11, 2004.

"That is not what the document shows at all," said Mr Mitchell. "The Senator misled the Bahamian public, and the press who have jumped on the bandwagon could have seen for themselves that what was said was absolutely incorrect, false and misleading."

Mr Mitchell said that the e-mail from Senator Traver Whylly, an assistant in the Office of the Prime Minister who asked for the assistance for Bahamian sea captain Bruce Bain who was not getting approval for visas for seamen on his boat, was not a promise of anything.

"I e-mailed the Senator the next day to say 'I will look into the matter'," he said.

Mr Mitchell said that on the same day he e-mailed Dr Rodgers under the subject "Your Approval," which was not one that he typed in but one which was in the original e-mail by the original sender of the e-mail.

"My message to the permanent secretary was simply this, 'for your advice'," he said. "I never saw or heard from the matter again until the e-mail showed up in the possession of Senator Carl Bethel with the words 'approved for issue' and initialed by the permanent secretary on May 11, 2005. I did not issue any such direction."

Addressing the second piece of evidence, the copy of a ledger entry that shows that the Minister approved visas to five Chinese nationals at the sponsorship of a Member of Parliament, Mr. Mitchell said that he defied anyone to produce any record or indicate that he instructed the visa section of the Ministry of issue the visas.

"Even if I had given a direction to issue the visas provided I acted within my discretion and the law; there is absolutely nothing wrong with the exercise of that discretion," he said.

Mr. Mitchell also noted that FNM parliamentarians in the previous administration had made similar visa requests, including Mr. Bethel, former Deputy Prime Minister Frank Watson and former House Speaker Italia Johnson and asked if that was considered political interference.

"I know the side opposite does not want to hear this but our economy is more dynamic than it was in their time so the number of requests will be more, and this is also the case where the embassy in Haiti is now closed or opened intermittently, and in the case of China there is a growing demand for Chinese businessmen to visit our country. The evidence we have is that the numbers have not quadrupled for Chinese visitors as was alleged by Senator Carl Bethel," he said.

Mr. Mitchell said that the visa allegations made by the opposition and how Mr Bethel came to be in possession of ministry documents are now before the police for investigation and he is prepared to let the "chips fall where they may."

As to Mr. Ingraham's request for a debate on the issue when the House reconvenes next year, Prime Minister Perry Christie said that the government had no fear about placing anything on the agenda and directed Mr Ingraham to follow the proper procedure and have the matter placed on the agenda.

Said Mr Ingraham: "I note that the prime minister did not respond positively to my request that government facilitate a debate, but that's fine. We will do what we have to do and move on."

By: Erica Wells, The Bahama Journal

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