Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Carolyn Cooper: Setting for Trinidad & Tobago Immigration

Published:Sunday | May 8, 2016 | 5:00 AM

I was ready for them. I had my return ticket. I had an email from the Kapok hotel confirming my reservation. I had two US$ credit cards and a decent amount of cash. I had no trouble at all. The female immigration officer examined my documents and sent me on my way. I was so disappointed. I did not qualify for deportation.

Seriously, though, I wonder why those 12 Jamaicans were sent back from Trinidad in March. According to Trinidad and Tobago's Foreign Affairs Minister Dennis Moses, immigration officers did the right thing. The Jamaicans could not provide evidence that they would be able to sustain themselves in Trinidad.

I wasn't asked for any such proof. I suppose since I'd said I was staying for only one week, it didn't matter. But what if I'd planned to miss my return flight? How could the immigration officer be sure I did not intend to defect to Trinidad?

It seems as if the deported Jamaicans put goat mouth on themselves. It is alleged that it was what they said in the interviews with immigration officers that decided their fate. They didn't give a good account of themselves - or of their bank account. But suppose the immigration officers simply took one look at them and arbitrarily decided that they were potential illegal immigrants?

The CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) treaty allows the region's nationals to enter each other's countries for up to six months. But some visitors refuse to leave after the legal time limit. And that's when the trouble starts. The Trinidad and Tobago government claims that in 2014, there were 19,500 illegal Jamaican immigrants in the country.

There are conflicting reports, but it seems as if Jamaicans aren't the worst offenders. The Guyanese are. Surprisingly, there's a relatively large number of Barbadian illegal immigrants. And Venezuelans and Grenadians and a whole lot more. About 110,000! And they force the Trinidad and Tobago government to provide health care, schooling and housing, for example. With the fall in the price of oil, the country's economy isn't doing so well. Even if T&T wanted to be the ATM of CARICOM, they can no longer afford it.

 

OPEN MOUTHS AND MINDS

 

I had gone to Trinidad for the BOCAS Lit Fest. I had wanted to go to the Tobago Jazz Experience as well, but I had to get my priorities straight. I had a lot of research papers to grade. That's a whole other story about how badly some of our tertiary-level students are performing. It is so depressing to read some of these papers: bad grammar; incoherent paragraphs that run on for a page and a half; half-formed ideas, very poorly expressed.

These students could drive you to drink or even suicide if you're not careful. I refuse to take their dreadful work personally. I do my best and my conscience is clear. I know some of the students don't even proofread their essays. They just dash them off, turn them in, and keep their fingers crossed. As I tell them, I don't give grades. I simply recognise the grades they give themselves.

There is a sprinkling of A papers that break the drought. They confirm that excellence is possible. It is lifesaving to read these essays. They remind you why you became a teacher of English. Native speakers of Jamaican can learn English efficiently and use the language with precision and style. It's not a case of either/or. It's both. And yes! I'm on my hobby horse. And it's a very good ride.

Jamaican students must learn other languages as well, like Spanish, which is so dominant in the Americas. The BOCAS Lit Fest is cleverly named after the Spanish word for 'mouth'. And the narrow passageways off Trinidad's northwest coast are called Bocas del Dragon the Dragon's Mouths.

The Bocas connect Trinidad to the Caribbean and the wider world, which is exactly what this brilliant literary festival does. Nuff congratulations to our own Olive Senior for winning this year's One Caribbean Media (OCM) prize for her book of short fiction, The Pain Tree!

 

MERIKINS IN TRINIDAD

 

One of the highlights of this year's BOCAS was the screening of an informative documentary on the Merikins and the accompanying concert of original music, River of Freedom. I'd never heard about the Merikins. One of the tragedies of schooling in the Caribbean is that so many histories have been erased.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of six companies of African-American soldiers in Trinidad. They were runaways from slavery who joined the British army to fight the Americans in the 1812 War. The British promised them freedom.

After four years of fighting, the soldiers were taken first to Bermuda and then to Trinidad. At the concert, a descendant of the Merikins told me that one company had ended up in Jamaica after a storm threw them off-course. If this is true, I wonder what happened to them. In 1816, slavery had not yet been abolished in Jamaica or Trinidad.

To avoid contact with enslaved Africans, the Merikins were marooned at the very south of the island in Moruga. They didn't have to prove they could sustain themselves. They were given basic supplies and quickly became self-sufficient. If only the new wave of immigrants could be so lucky!

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.