Use your votes to protect yourselves and Jamaica


Sunday, May 20, 2018

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Taken from an address to a town hall meeting last Thursday at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center in Queens, New York, put on by GraceKennedy Money Services and Western Union.

The Jamaican Diaspora continues to be a source of immense pride to us back home. It is exceptional in the depth of its patriotism the extent to which it cherishes its identity and exudes the strength of our culture.

You, yourselves, may not fully appreciate the significant role you play as ambassadors, making your presence felt, providing the wheels for the popularisation of our music and our culture and leaving a lasting impression on persons with whom you come in contact. Many persons who have never been to Jamaica know a lot about Jamaica through their interaction with you. No amount of advertising spend could ever achieve that.

Brain drain or foreign investment

We often look negatively at migration as a brain drain, especially because two-thirds of our university graduates are among those migrating. A more positive way of looking at it is as a form of foreign investment. Many of these migrants contribute more to Jamaica's economy and development than they would have been able to do if they had stayed home.

The remittances that flow to Jamaica — over US$2 billion each year — are equivalent to 17 per cent of our gross domestic product, equal to all of what we earn from tourism and almost twice what we earn from exports. Jamaica could hardly survive without them. In addition, many of you are involved in charitable work that benefits schools and health facilities as well as your own communities back home.

Jamaicans elected to office

We are especially proud of those who were born in Jamaica or born here in the United States to Jamaican parents who have been elected to political office. We honour the work and achievements of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke and her mother, the indefatigable former City Council member Una Clarke who for decades was the face of the Jamaican community in New York. We hail the outstanding service being given by Nick Perry and Michael Blake, both members of the State Assembly, and by State Senator Leroy Comrie.

We need more people like these in public office to ensure that, in the making of policies and the taking of decisions, your interests and the interests of your homeland are effectively represented, and there is much that you can do to make that happen. We need them more now than ever before because there are issues that I know must be of as much concern to you, living in the US, as they are to us back home.

American inclusiveness being rolled back

There seems to be a determined effort to roll back the inclusiveness that has defined the United States and allowed so many of you to come here and establish yourselves. The dream that Martin Luther King shared with us and with which he inspired generations is under threat. Racism in America has never been completely eradicated, but it had reached a stage where it was generally accepted that it was wrong, even if a stubborn minority couldn't overcome the inclination to practise it. There is emerging today, among some in America, a strong and defiant belief that it was wrong to believe that it is wrong.

American presidents, going all the way back to George Washington, proudly proclaimed America as a nation of immigrants. That phrase was included in the mission statement of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security that was boldly displayed on the walls of every international airport in America. Those words were suddenly deleted in February of this year — a not-so-veiled reflection of the perspective of the new Administration toward immigrants.

Myths about the immigrant minority

At the beginning of the last century — more than 100 years ago — immigrants made up 15 per cent of the American population. It was not a crisis then. Today, immigrants make up less than 14 per cent of the population and it is now said to be a crisis. How come?

At that time three-quarters of the immigrants came from Europe, many of them fleeing the ravages of war and persecution with only the clothes on their backs. They were welcomed and they helped to make America great. Today, three-quarters of the immigrants are Hispanics, Asians and persons of African descent who are helping to make America even greater, but they are said to constitute a crisis and the welcome mat is being withdrawn.

It is claimed that immigrants are taking jobs away from US-born citizens, but how can that be true? The unemployment rate is now 3.9 per cent. The last time it was lower than that was in 1969 — almost 50 years ago! So, which jobs are these crisis-causing immigrants stealing? Immigrants make up 17 per cent of the American workforce. Without them, the US economy would go into convulsions.

Attempts have been made to link immigrants to criminal behaviour. This is baloney! The propensity of the immigrant population to criminal behaviour is lower than the national average.

The proposed changes to the immigration system is an issue that I know must be of concern to you. I suggest that you need to be more than just concerned; you need to be proactive.

Jamaican immigrants are an asset – not a burden

The overwhelming majority of Jamaicans here are good, law-abiding and hard-working citizens who pay their taxes and contribute much to the American economy and society.

Data published by two reputable research sources — the Migration Policy Institute and the Pew Research Center — show that Jamaican immigrants in the United States enjoy a higher rate of employment than those from most other migrating countries. Thousands of them have established their own businesses. The median income of Jamaican immigrants is US$51,000, which compares favourably with other immigrant nationalities. More than a half of Jamaican families own their own homes; more than 60 per cent of them have private health insurance.

So, no one can accuse you of being a burden to the United States, of loafing around, waiting on handouts or depending on the Government to take care of you. I doubt you will ever find a Jamaican pan handling on the streets. Many of you accept jobs for which you are over-qualified; many of you have taken advantage of the opportunity to upgrade your skills; many of you work two, three jobs and long hours. You work hard not only to look after yourselves and your families here, but also to look after many of us back home. You are not the “wretched refuse of any teeming shore” that the Statue of Liberty speaks about; you are an asset to the United States as well as an asset to the land of your birth.

Proposed immigration policy changes

However, the ground on which you have stood and are building your productive lives is beginning to shake. The immigration policy changes that have been proposed would radically restrict the access from which many of you benefited. Most of you secured your green card — your passport to citizenship — because someone filed for you. It may have been a mother or father, a sister or brother, a son or daughter.

Some choose to refer to this as chain migration but it is a facility that is based on the principle of family reunification that is deeply rooted in traditional American values. In addition, lawful immigration numbers are largely limited by quota to ensure that America is not overwhelmed and to manage the flow of immigrants in such a way that they can be absorbed smoothly into the American society.

The proposed changes would restrict family-sponsored green cards to spouses and children under 21 years. A half of those from Jamaica who normally secure green cards would no longer qualify. You would no longer be able to file for a child who is over 21 — a brother or sister or a mother or father.

Lobbying your representatives in Congress

Don't wait for this hammer to drop. And don't just sit there or leave it to the Jamaican Government to pursue diplomatic representation. It may well be told that US immigration policy is a domestic matter... and that would be correct.

We were able to get the British Government to halt the mass deportation of thousands of Caribbean immigrants and to provide them with a pathway to citizenship. It was even forced to issue a public apology. But none of this would ever have occurred were it not for the fierce battle in the British Parliament led by David Lammy and Diane Abbott — two MPs with Caribbean roots — and the support they were able to mobilise from over 200 other members of Parliament.

Use your vote

Two-thirds of the Jamaicans who reside legally in the United States have secured American citizenship, which means that those 18 years and over are entitled to vote. I don't know how many of them actually register and vote. What I do know is that the voter turnout in New York is among the lowest of all 50 states and the turnout is even lower in New York City.

You must register and you must vote! You must do more than vote. Follow the example of the Cuban-Americans in Florida who are so organised and vote so heavily that they command the attention of presidents and senators and members of congress and candidates that aspire to those offices. Get busy, get involved, assert yourselves, make strategic use of your numbers. Call your representatives in Congress, write to your senators.

Register to vote and let them know how well registered you are and how determined you are to cast your vote. Attend political forums and town hall meetings and express your concerns with strong but not necessarily colourful Jamaican language.

Undocumented Jamaicans

There are between 60,000 and 100,000 undocumented Jamaicans here in the US. The majority of them have been here for more than 10 years. Most of them also work hard, doing jobs that others are unwilling to do, pay their taxes and obey the laws. They are now at risk of being rounded up and sent back. You need to get your representatives to make a case for them. Remind them, politely but firmly, that you have a vote — many votes — and you intend to use them.

It is not an unreasonable position to ask them to take. The Democrats, by and large, are supportive and there are at least two Republican congressmen from New York who seem to be open to providing some accommodation for undocumented immigrants. In approaching them, you can rely on the words of three former presidents, interestingly, two Republicans and one Democrat:

• President Ronald Reagan, in a statement from the White House on July 31, 1981, said:

“Illegal immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our work force. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognised and accorded legal status.”

• President George W Bush, speaking in Arizona on April 9, 2007, declared:

“Illegal immigrants who have roots in our country and want to stay should have to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law, and pay their taxes, and learn the English language, and show that they've worked in a job for a number of years. People who meet a reasonable number of conditions... should be able to apply for citizenship. But approval would not be automatic, and they would have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law.”

• President Barack Obama, during the presidential debate with Mitt Romney on October 16, 2012, said:

“If we're going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families.”

Jamaicans and DACA

There are about 9,000 Jamaicans that were eligible for DACA. As of 2016, only 4,155 had applied, 3,298 of whom were approved. The rest, due to their own negligence, were left out. Some of those approvals have expired but the courts have ordered that they be allowed to apply for renewal. You should encourage them to do so.

President Trump's proposals for immigration reform have raised the possibility of DACA being re-opened and expanded to accommodate twice as many persons. Urge your representatives to press for it, provided no unacceptable strings are attached and, if it comes about, encourage those Jamaicans who were left out of the first round to grab the opportunity.

Congresswoman Yvette Clarke has been a powerful defender of the immigrant community. We applaud her for that. There are other members of New York's congressional delegation that are also strident in their support of the immigrant community. Maintain close contact with them; encourage and support their efforts and urge them to continue to support you.

There are also challenges that we face back home arising from the new political order in America. We need your help in urging your representatives to look out for Jamaica.

Future of the Caribbean Basin Initiative

President Reagan established the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) in 1983 under which a wide range of Jamaican-made goods are allowed duty-free or preferential tariff entry into the US market. These arrangements require a waiver from the WTO every five years.

The last waiver that was granted will expire at the end of next year. If a new waiver is not obtained, customs duties will have to be paid on Jamaican goods entering the US market. We would find it hard to compete, especially with Central American countries whose goods enter duty-free under their free trade agreement with the United States.

The loss of CBI benefits would hurt our prospects for economic growth and job creation. Jamaica, as the beneficiary country, cannot apply for the extension of the waiver; only the US Government can do that.

The trade policy announced by the US Government under the “America First” mantra has created some doubt as to whether the US is willing to apply for an extension.

We need the support of your representatives in Congress to protect the CBI. In addition to Representative Yvette Clarke, Representative Eliot Engel has long been a supporter of Caribbean interests and was the chief sponsor of the Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act which President Obama signed into law shortly before he left office. Talk to him and your other representatives as well. Let them know that this matter is important to you and your families back home.

There are other issues that I want to put on your “To Do” list.

Correspondent banks de-risking

Jamaica, like other Caribbean countries, is being hurt by what is called correspondent banking de-risking. Our financial transactions with the rest of the world have to pass through major financial institutions that are mainly located here in America. The major countries of the world where international banking centres are located have collaborated to impose tight and complicated compliance measures relating to international financial transactions in an effort to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism. We in Jamaica have worked hard to comply with these requirements.

Many people back home complain about the tedious process in opening a bank account or conducting even simple transactions with their banks. This is because of the tight compliance standards to which they have to adhere. Banks and financial institutions are required not only to know their customers but they must satisfy themselves that their customers' money is coming from and going to legitimate sources and they are liable to severe penalties if they allow illicit transactions to slip through.

Even though the Bank of Jamaica and our financial institutions have done so much to meet these compliance standards, including investing heavily in sophisticated technology, some correspondent banks have decided that the volume of our transactions in global terms is too small for them to take the risk of handling them because they, too, are liable to penalties. Smaller countries in the Eastern Caribbean have been even more severely affected.

Risks to Jamaica's economy

If this were to intensify, it would increasingly isolate small countries like Jamaica from the global market and financial system. We would have difficulty trading with the rest of the world in a situation where more than 80 per cent of our economy depends on trade and requires international payment transactions on a daily basis. It would affect the handling of remittances and tourism earnings.

We are doing all that is required of us and it is unfair for us to be shut out simply because we are too small for the correspondent banks to bother to deal with us. The US Government is a key player in this arrangement. We need you to talk to your representatives in Congress. Explain to them that this poses a serious threat to Jamaica's economy and the livelihood of your families back home. Urge them to raise their voices on our behalf.

I have one more task for you.

Stemming the flow of illegal guns

The United States puts us under tremendous pressure to combat drug trafficking. We are vulnerable. We are virtually at the midpoint of the drug trafficking route between the primary source countries and the southern tip of Florida. We are an island with 635 miles of coastline that it is extremely difficult and expensive to patrol and secure. The United States has provided us with financial and material assistance for border surveillance and interdiction and its Narcotics Control Strategy Report issued in March this year has recognised the considerable efforts we are making to apprehend drug shipments.

The US approach to drug trafficking is heavily supply-centered. The emphasis is on preventing the drugs from reaching the US — not reducing the demand for the drugs here in the US.

We have an equally pressing issue: the supply of guns coming into Jamaica from the US. Some of them arrive by boat, mainly from Haiti, but the majority are concealed in containers and barrels that are shipped through established ports. These are used by criminal elements, including the scammers, to commit murder and mayhem.

Each year, the police recover about 700 illegal guns but much more than 700 new guns arrive in the island. It is like trying to mop up the floor while the pipe is still running. The US has not, up to now, been prepared to apply the same supply-side approach to the flow of illegal guns that it adopts to the flow of illegal drugs. We need your help on this, as well. The illegal guns coming into Jamaica are even more destructive in terms of human lives than the illegal drugs coming into the US.

Last year, the number of murders in Jamaica was 5 times the number in New York City although the population here is three times that of the population in Jamaica. Talk to your representatives in Congress. We need their voice and their advocacy to help reduce the supply of guns that are used to kill even women and babies.

The sun will never set on Jamaica

The Jamaican Diaspora has made us proud. Countries like Israel and India have shown how important the Diaspora is to their national development. You are just as important to Jamaica's development. Geographically, we are an island but, in this global environment, no people are an island and no people stand alone. So much of what happens to us, so much of our hopes and aspirations depend on what happens here in the United States. You are here. I urge you to not just be here but to continue to be here for us.

Keep doing well for yourself and for Jamaica. The tourists that come to our shores have been taught to say “Jamaica – no problem”. That is not entirely so. We do have some problems but none so great that it is beyond our capacity to fix. With your help, and with God's grace, the sun will never set on Jamaica.

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