First among equals … at home

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A statement by a woman who generally describes herself as a patriot, a fiercely proud Antiguan, gave me pause recently. This woman was admonishing her two children – after they would have gone off to university – to “stay away.  Don’t bother come back here!”  Asked why she would encourage her kids to become second-class citizens in someone else’s country, rather than return home to take their rightful place in their own, she replied, “What rightful place?”

This is the lens through which I now look at immigration and its satellite issues in Antigua & Barbuda.

I don’t believe there is a born Antiguan or Barbudan who is not, by nature and nurture, a humanist. And if there were any who doubted our innate love and care for other people, certainly, our response to the Haiti crisis has dispelled those feelings. Hence, when a citizen of this country expresses reservations about the approach to and the practices governing immigration, it is not motivated primarily by resentment, prejudice or xenophobia.  We do not fear strangers. What we fear is becoming strangers in the place we call home.

Many, if not most, of the findings of the immigration reform task force, and the recommendations coming out of them, are aimed at protecting the rights of citizens in terms of employment, social services, and, very critically, the election of a government. And who can fault the people when these are what we know to be, if not the exclusive domain of citizenship, then the entitlement of citizens.

There is this idea touted in the region – by politicians of struggling economies especially, as well as by academics and idealists – of a certain commonality between all of us as Caribbean people.  The premise is both true and false. For while we might have common roots from, say, Africa and Europe, or even India, and enjoy common traditions, the passions that drive a citizen and an immigrant are vastly different.

As we ourselves know, when we move to other countries, our initial motivation is to make life better for ourselves first; our families second; and, indirectly or otherwise, our country third.  Accordingly, and necessarily, the building-up of our temporary “home” simply must wait until these three are satisfied – if ever – unless we decide to become naturalized citizens of our new country.  And, even then, that decision is usually influenced by the desire to protect what we see as our investment: the heavily mortgaged property; the “good” job; the children’s college education; and, as we age, the health and pension benefits.

This is not a judgment; these, simply, are the facts.  And it is in light of these facts that a differentiation must be made between those who are citizens and those who live here, for each of us is born with only one navel string.

Last year, in Bermuda, I asked my friend, the former premier Dame Jennifer Smith, “How long do you have to live here before you can apply to become a citizen?”  Her answer was two words long: “You can’t.” This in a land described as “the best-run country in the world,” where the standard of living is First World, and the salaries and wages and housing stock testify that it is true.  But it is also a tiny country, one in which natural resources like land, and even rainfall, are truly limited; and so its people have learned to protect what they do have in order to hold onto it.  Others may come; they may work and make a good living; they may enjoy protection under the law.  But they cannot, at will, cross the line.

Now, I would be the first to tell you that I find this policy harsh. Some of the hardest working, most law-abiding, and truly decent people I know are immigrants to Antigua & Barbuda.  (In terms of civics, many of them would put many of us to shame – if, indeed, some of us have any shame at all.) They have bent their backs alongside ours and put their hands to the plough, and the calluses on their palms are identical to ours. Many is the teacher, the nurse, the fireman, the sanitation worker, the carpenter, the home-care helper whose efforts have helped to propel this country to its pride of place in the sub-region. Hence, I strongly believe that Antigua & Barbuda should encourage and enable these persons to become citizens; a move that would protect both the individuals’ investment and the country’s interests. It would also do much to restore faith in the institutions and values that now seem under threat of instability and incredibility, such as the family, the church, and the various agencies of law enforcement.

I believe that citizenship is an honourable thing, a desirable thing, the highest order or status one can seek in another man’s land. Accordingly, those who wish to enjoy the privileges of citizenship must not only undergo the process, but they must deserve it.

I do not believe that because a person looks or sounds like me, or because I enjoy her foods, or dance to his music, that he or she, like me, is entitled to all I have. If he or she has no positive contribution to make, neither in coin nor in kind, then he or she can continue not to make it … but elsewhere.  And if persons are satisfied to retain their own nationality and seek nothing more from this country than employment, well, I respect that, too, but strictly as a financial transaction.  No privileges need apply: and by that I mean the right to vote; the right to own land; and the right to have their offspring be called Antiguan or Barbudan.  After all, my lifetime commitment cannot be duplicated in anybody’s three years. …

It is a noble ideal, this idea of regional integration; this ambition of an archipelago without borders; this dream of perfect equality among the people who are born here and those who come here. Certainly, all men are created equal; but we know that some are more equal than others.  And I, for one, as a citizen of this country, claim and insist upon having primacy where I was born.

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