Immigration reform is absolutely necessary. Anyone who understands the island’s demographics and the serious reliance Bermuda has on a non-Bermudian workforce to sustain its economy knows this. The trouble is that the intentions and motives behind the OBA’s proposed immigration reforms are rather confusing. Their message creates a disconnect that has inflamed the issue and now they’re dealing with unnecessary fallout.
Their primary argument is that it is the ‘right thing to do’ and that it helps prevent long term residents of the island from leaving. They’ve showcased a number of individuals whom contribute to society whom are trapped by the island’s current status framework. The trouble is, none of this resonates with many Bermudians as it offers little added personal value. For many it is hard to comprehend why this is more important than other possible efforts. It won’t create any additional jobs, it won’t improve the lives of any Bermudian, it will only improve the lives of non-Bermudians wishing to become Bermudian. We’re still deep in a recession so the people are more worried about helping themselves than helping others. It’s a pretty hard current to try to swim against.
The increasing challenge the OBA faces is that they have a trust deficit that needs repairing just as much as the government’s revenue deficit. This immigration issue is a very odd issue to take a firm stance on. Yes, not changing the status laws will cost us some money in legal battles we’ll likely lose. It’s a weak argument though as we could simply not try very hard to contest them to keep costs low and be legally forced into granting status. Ideal? Certainly not. But better than stirring a storm in a teacup over an odd issue. If we were going to stare down the unions it would have been much preferable to have happened over the furlough days which would have helped cut the deficit more and prevented tax increases.
The framing of the message is a core factor in why the OBA faces a problem. They didn’t frame the proposal very well from the beginning. The story you weave around an issue can have a major impact on how its received. The story they’re telling doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Sure, immigration reform to try to prevent people from leaving is great. The trouble is it is like abolishing term limits, it’s welcome, but as the saying goes, it’s like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. One could be mistaken for thinking that perhaps the real reasoning behind the policy is to grant status to major international business owners. That would make quite a bit more sense as if they leave, jobs and investment go with them. If they were to gain status, they may well be inclined to invest even more into the island. One could wonder if the OBA has avoided admitting this as a true motive and if so, why they feel it would be a detractor? Certainly that’s a far better explanation than a sous-chef that has bafflingly managed to stick it out through 20 years of work permits including term limits.
The biggest problem is that this kind of reform is about 2 years too late and really doesn’t go far enough. The OBA is getting increasingly close to the election whose date they promised would be decided by fixed term but won’t. They burnt through most of their political capital abandoning and not delivering on promises and are running heavy deficits. The good ship Bermuda is sadly sailing very close to the rocks. To borrow an analogy from the sailing world, the real trouble is that the OBA keeps trying tack when it really needed to jibe. One is a gentle change that can be easy when you’ve got the wind in your favour. The other is a violent change with a lot of risk when the wind can be working against you. When the wind is against you and you’re up against the rocks, it’s time to stop being afraid of the jib and far more afraid of the rocks.
What the island needs most is a drastic increase in population in the form of a well paid foreign workforce. The OBA is toying with status grants where it should be eliminating any and all restrictions to importing skilled labor. Hiring highly skilled, well paid labour in fields that traditionally are vastly undersupplied by Bermudians should be less bureaucracy than a rubber stamp. That kind of immigration reform would at least be worth all this “withdrawl of labour” harassment.