Haiti

‘Stateless’ teen in Bahamas can’t get to U.S. for medical care

Taranique Thurston, 16, needs to get to Miami for urgent medical treatment but she lacks official status in the Bahamas, where she was born to a Bahamian father and a mother who was also born in the country to a Haitian father and Mexican mother.
Taranique Thurston, 16, needs to get to Miami for urgent medical treatment but she lacks official status in the Bahamas, where she was born to a Bahamian father and a mother who was also born in the country to a Haitian father and Mexican mother.

For months, Taranique Thurston has been caught in limbo in the Bahamas while a cyst grows in her brain.

She needs medical treatment in Miami that could save her life. But the 16-year-old can’t travel to the United States because of a provision in the Bahamian citizenship law that has left her without a country.

Her father is a Bahamian citizen. Her mother, of Haitian descent, was born in the Bahamas and became a citizen four years ago. When Taranique was born — in the Bahamas — her parents weren’t married. And that means, under a Bahamian law that traces citizenship through the father of a married couple, she’s not considered a citizen and not entitled to a passport.

Taranique is stateless. She’s also increasingly ill.

Taranique Thurston describes her medical status and Bahamian citizenship difficulties.

“My daughter was diagnosed last year and we’re still trapped here and can’t move,” said Taranique’s mother, Ginette Caty. “My daughter is really, really distressed about the situation that’s going on.”

Taranique’s case is the latest example of the impact of a Bahamian nationality law that doesn’t automatically grant citizenship to individuals born in the country after 1973, when the country gained independence from the United Kingdom. While the law affects all foreigners in the country, it has overwhelmingly affected the children of Haitian immigrants like Taranique.

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After the Bahamas’ Tribune newspaper began writing stories about Taranique’s inability to get to the U.S. for medical treatment because of her irregular immigration status, her case caught the attention of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In a 2017 report, UNHCR said an undetermined number of persons of Haitian descent born in the Bahamas are considered stateless, unable to acquire either Bahamian or Haitian nationality due to administrative barriers. The U.N. refugee agency has called on Bahamian authorities to address the gaps in their nationality law that have created the problem.

“It is unfortunate that Bahamian law continues to limit the transmission of citizenship and the inherent benefits that come with it, including the ability to hold a passport and freely travel,” said Gary Seidman, a spokesman for UNHCR. “This case highlights the regrettable, and possibly life-threatening, consequences of being a person who is not recognized as a citizen of any country.”

In the Bahamas, Taranique’s nationality has been listed on official identity papers as Haitian, under the assumption that because her mother is part Haitian and wasn’t a Bahamian citizen when Taranique was born, Taranique must be considered Haitian as well. But Caty says that’s an outdated notion. She has appealed to both the Bahamian government and the U.S. Embassy in Nassau for help.

“They have to get it right, and it’s common sense,” Caty said. “If the birth certificate says the child was born here, mother was born here, father was born here — why does the passport have to say something else? In our country, we are still far back. That is why we need to get some other people to intervene and put some knowledge in these [people’s] heads.”

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Caty, 34, who was also stateless until she received her Bahamas citizenship certificate four years ago, said she was told to seek a Haitian passport for her child — only to be turned away by the Haitian embassy. Under Haiti’s constitution, the children of Haitians can claim Haitian nationality, but dual citizenship isn’t recognized.

“The Haitian Embassy indicated that if I were born in Haiti or the father was born in Haiti, then they could have given that child Haitian nationality,” said Caty. “But if the mother is a Bahamian and the father is a Bahamian, [the ambassador] said he is unable to give the second generation a different nationality because that would not be right. If I am a Bahamian and her father is a Bahamian how can my child be something else?”

But under the laws of the Bahamas, one of two countries in the Western Hemisphere (the other is Barbados) that retains gender discrimination in its nationality laws, it is possible. In cases where a child’s father is Bahamian and the mother is not, and the parents are unmarried, the child takes the nationality of the mother, according to the country’s constitution.

Immigration Minister Brent Symonette last month addressed an immigration backlog that has had some waiting as long as 20 years for citizenship. He said there is no constitutional entitlement to citizenship. Young adults must apply for it between ages 18 and 19. Earlier this year, he announced a proposed change to the immigration law that would provide permanent residency, and not citizenship to those who fail to meet the application deadline.

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Dahene Nonard who was born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents has been unable to get her citizenship five years after applying. Nonard, 23, has accused immigration officers of beating her and spitting on her during a roundup. Courtesy of Fred Smith

In Caty’s case, she was born in the Bahamas to a Mexican mother and Haitian father. She was stateless and living in the Bahamas, land of her birth, before she became a naturalized Bahamian — 13 years after she first applied.

“Had I gotten my document in time, all of my children would have been straight,” said Caty, who had four of her five children, including Taranique, during her long wait for naturalization.

But even with a Bahamian passport, she concedes there is no guarantee that Bahamians will accept those whom they consider to be foreigners.

“Even if they give you the Bahamian passport you’re still not considered Bahamian under their law,” Caty said. “It has a lot to do with racism. It has a lot to do with hate and it has a lot to do with jealously and it has a lot to do with envy. They feel like this is this land and we have a different blood.”

Neither Symonette nor Foreign Minister Darren Henfield responded to a Miami Herald request for comment. The Tribune reported last month that the government, after reading about Taranique’s case, is working to get her to the U.S.

Caty said an official, Audette Wells-Simms, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is supposed to be helping her with the application for a U.S. visa for Taranique based on the child’s Certificate of Identification because she cannot get a Bahamian passport. Well-Simms did not respond to a Herald request for comment about the case.

Caty hopes the visa will be issued in time for a Sept. 18 appointment at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. At Jackson, Taranique is set to be evaluated by a specialist to determine her treatment. But no one seems to be sure whether Taranique will get to come to Miami. Caty said she keeps being asked by the foreign affairs ministry to resubmit documents that she has already provided.

The U.S. State Department would not discuss the case but a spokesperson said the embassy will accept a Bahamian Certificate of Identification as a valid travel document as long as individuals meet other requirements. Caty, who was already turned down for a U.S. visa when she showed up at the embassy in the Bahamas, said she’s waiting to see if this time will be different.

“We have to get there,” she said. “I need my daughter to get the help that she needs. I need to save my daughter’s life.”

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Bahamas human rights attorney Fred Smith visits children of Haitian immigrants in the Bahamas. Smith, a defender of the community, has been the target of protests and attacks over the years. Courtesy of Fred Smith

Fred Smith, a Freeport-based human rights attorney who has called for the Bahamas to provide citizenship to anyone born on its soil, said while the nationality law applies to all immigrants, Haitians feel its sting more than most other groups.

“Regrettably, Taranique is the tip of the iceberg,” Smith said. “There are thousands of children born to Haitian parents in the Bahamas who are citizens-in-waiting. ... Applications for citizenship are sitting in immigration and ‘they can’t find the files.’“

One of them is 23-year-old Dahene Nonard, whose parents migrated to the Bahamas from Haiti in 1983. Nonard, Smith, said has waited for five years to apply to become a citizen.

In a 2014 interview with the Tribune, Nonard said she was “kicked several times, punched and put in a head-lock by immigration officers” for not having Bahamian documents on her to show her legal status in the country. She was later detained at the Carmichael Road Detention Center in Nassau. Then-Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell said Nonard’s account did not match the official report but acknowledged that her allegations were being investigated.

“It is typical of the challenges faced by people,” of Haitian descent, said Smith.

In July, he filed suit against the government on behalf of Nonard, whose certificate of identity has expired and has yet to be issued citizenship.

Individuals born of Haitian heritage in the Bahamas have long faced discrimination, threats of mass arrest, detention, deportation and political disenfranchisement, Smith said. One recent case involved Rony Jean-Charles, who was born in Nassau, went to school there and then was expelled and sent to Haiti last year without a deportation order after he failed to present documents of his lawful presence in the country. The case is still in the courts.

Smith, who represents Jean-Charles, said while the nationality law is at the root of the problem, 2014 changes in Bahamian law have caused additional issues for people of Haitian descent living there.

Anyone living in the Bahamas is now required to hold a passport of their nationality in order to legally reside in the country. As a result, Smith said, the children of Haitian immigrants have either been forced to go ‘stateless’ because they cannot get a Bahamian passport until they are 18, or must get a Haitian passport until Bahamian citizenship is possible.

An effort to amend the nationality law through a constitutional amendment in 2016 was overwhelmingly rejected. Among the proposed changes: giving Bahamian women the right to automatically transfer citizenship to their children regardless of where they are born.

“Literally thousands of people have been rounded up since November 2014 to the present. Even though they were born in the Bahamas, they are being deported to Haiti,” said Smith. “If you don’t have your Haitian passport or Bahamian citizenship certificate, you can’t get a marriage certificate...you lose your home, all of your possessions. You can’t register for national insurance. You can’t get a job.”

He called it “a program of ethnic cleansing the Bahamas of people of Haitian ethnic origin.”

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Bahamas officials over the years have responded to Smith and other critics of their immigration policy by saying that they have been inundated by Haitian migration and have to protect their porous borders. Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, who earlier this year raised the issue of reducing the flow with Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, has himself come under criticism for a plan to demolish shantytowns occupied mostly by Haitians in New Providence and Abaco.

Caty, who says she has endured discrimination in the Bahamas, said she’s determined to give her children a better life.

“I have four daughters born in this country and I have a right to speak and to say what I want for them and what I don’t want for them,” she said.

Taranique’s medical problems began last year when the teen complained about headaches, Caty said. After a visit to Doctors Hospital in Nassau, a neurologist referred the girl to Jackson Memorial Hospital in the United States.

Caty said she went to the U.S. Embassy with several documents including a Bahamian document called a “Belonger’s Permit” but was ultimately turned down for a medical visa, based on her lack of a passport.

Caty and Taranique are still hoping to fly to Miami on Saturday. But on Tuesday, after a meeting with the Bahamas’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Caty was dealt another setback.

Caty said she was told that she would need to present a letter showing proof that she can pay for Taranique’s medical care in Miami before the ministry of foreign affairs forwards her visa application to the U.S. Embassy. Before that, she said, she had been told all she needed was proof that she paid for the airplane ticket and accommodations.

The doctor’s appointment is supposed to be a consultation, costing about $300 to $400, money that Caty had already set aside.

“I was crying when I left there,” she said. “I am just looking to try and save my daughter.”

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