On Citizenship

It’s a funny thing about belonging to a country. We think of it as something that happens automatically, but it’s not. Anyone who’s had to apply for a passport for travel will realize that fact; it’s all very well to talk about being “born dere”, but in fact being a citizen of a nation has far more to do with politics than with birth.

There are many people who are born right here in The Bahamas who would attest to that truth.

You see, the regulations that govern who may or may not be considered a citizen of these Bahamian islands are not things that are handed down from on high. No. They are written in the constitution of the Bahamas, and they are very clear. In short, they go something like this:

You’re a citizen if you were born in The Bahamas before July 10, 1973, and were a citizen of the United Kingdom. In short, anyone who held, or could hold, the passport the British assigned to the Bahamas colony automatically became a Bahamian. You could also become a Bahamian if you were a foreign woman who had been married to a Bahamian.

You’re a citizen, if, after July 10, 1973, you are born in The Bahamas and both your parents are Bahamian or if your father is Bahamian, even if your mother is not.

If your mother’s a Bahamian, but she married a non- Bahamian, and you’re born in The Bahamas, you’re not automatically Bahamian

If you’re born outside The Bahamas, you get to be a citizen only if your father is a Bahamian, or if your mother’s a Bahamian and not married. And if you’re born into a country that automatically confers citizenship at birth, you will have to give up that citizenship when activating your Bahamian citizenship.

And even if everything else is equal, the Government of The Bahamas can, under certain circumstances, revoke your citizenship. It might do this if you are discovered to be in possession of more than one passport, a technical no-no in our scheme of things. Citizenship, you see, is not an automatic entitlement of birth. It’s something that a group of people decides for you, something that a government confers. And in the case of The Bahamas, the rules governing that conferring are not the same for everyone.

Three years ago, the former government held a referendum addressing certain elements of the Bahamian constitution. Some of them had to do with citizenship, specifically with the role of Bahamian women in the conference of citizenship to their children. The present government, recognizing a potential need for constitutional reform, has established a Constitutional Commission to follow up on the subject. And today, with a growing population of resident non-nationals throughout the country — erroneously called “illegal immigrants” — getting themselves in the newspapers by building shantytowns and forming posses and attacking police cars, it’s time for us to reconsider the criteria we use when we’re talking about Bahamian citizens.

I happen to be one of those people who believe that citizenship should be a simple matter of blood or birth. In my opinion, both are sound criteria for defining citizenship. You should be Bahamian if one of your parents is Bahamian, no matter what their sex or marital status; and you should be Bahamian if you’re born in The Bahamas, no matter who your parents are.

Now I know that both of these positions are contentious, especially as most of us appear to believe that we are a nation under siege, a nation in imminent danger of being overrun by aliens. I’m not going to spend much time trying to defend my position logically; the reaction to the position is bound to be illogical, and I’ll only be wasting words.

So never mind the fact that our country is woefully underpopulated — with a landmass the same size as Jamaica and a population that’s one-tenth of the Jamaican population, we could do with more Bahamians, and should be encouraging immigration. Never mind the fact that, like it or not, our society is so structured that it needs sizeable numbers of immigrants to make it work. Never mind the fact that in a globalizing world, the ability to be flexible, to adapt easily to difference, to be cosmopolitan, not insular, are strengths, not weaknesses. Let’s cut straight to the chase.

It seems to me that there’s something inherently weak, something soft, about the way in which we define citizenship in The Bahamas. Bahamian citizenship, it seems, does not conquer anything at all. Rather, it seems a pretty vulnerable thing. One gets to be Bahamian only after meeting a complex web of conditions. There’s nothing simple about our belonging to our nation; there’s no being-Bahamian-by-geography going on, as there is in the USA, or being-Bahamian-by-blood, as happens with Haiti. You’re Bahamian if you’re born of a Bahamian father, if you’re born in The Bahamas, if you’re born before 1973, if your Bahamian mother didn’t marry your non-Bahamian father. If we were dealing with genetic theory here, the Bahamian gene would be classified as curiously recessive.

I can find nothing to be proud of in that. There’s a confidence lacking from our identity, a confidence that is found in the Haitian or the American definition of citizenship. In those countries, there’s a sense of pride, not paranoia, about deciding who belongs where. Unlike us, there are no if-if-ifs about it; you belong by birth or by blood.

I can’t help admiring that kind of confidence, and I can’t help wondering why we imagine our citizenship as being so weak. And so I ask you. Why, then, when deciding who’s Bahamian and who isn’t, have we got all those conditions? Why is it that, when defining who can or can’t be Bahamian, we reveal more weakness than strength?