Residents shared thoughts on Premier Andrew Fahie’s “Clear Path to Regularisation” during a meeting Monday night at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. (Photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

After Hurricane Irma destroyed her apartment and ripped
through the restaurant where she worked in September 2017,
Raquel Richmond had a choice to make: go back to her native Jamaica or stay in the Virgin Islands, the territory she had called home for 17 years.

“I did not leave,” she said. “It was terrible for me, but I did not leave. What I did was come to my workplace and try to fix it
back so we could have a job.” Her two coworkers, also non-belongers like her, worked right alongside her. Her boss was on
St. Thomas at the time, she said.

“It hurts me when they say that [non-belongers] left,” she
said, adding that she hasn’t been back to Jamaica in four or five years. “All my savings are here; all my furniture I have in Tortola.

Tortola is my home, even though I am not from here.”

Fierce opposition

The contention that non-belongers fled back “home” after
Irma is one of many points raised by critics of Premier Andrew
Fahie’s “Clear Path to Regularisation,” a plan unveiled earlier
this month that would quickly grant permanent residency and
belonger status to expatriates who, like Ms. Richmond, have
lived in the territory for 15 years or more.

The premier has described the initiative as a “fast-track programme … that will restore the dignity of hundreds and establish a foundation for empowerment and unity.”

Even before announcing the plan, though, Mr. Fahie was getting pushback over his views on immigration. Now social media debate
around the plan has grown heated, touching a nerve in a territory where some 60 percent of residents are foreign-born and where Virgin Islanders have at times complained of feeling marginalised in their own land.

Opponents questioned the high-speed rollout of Mr. Fahie’s
plan, with its application period of just one week, imploring him to slow down, consider and study the possible future strain on the small territory’s schools, social services, economy and culture.

Critics also have alleged that some belonger applicants do not
contribute enough to the territory, that they will compete with
VI natives for trade licences, and that they could drive up land
prices.

The programme — which opens to applicants Monday —
is aimed at addressing the large backlog of applications and processing new ones. New applicants will still have to present the same documents required previously, which include reference letters, a birth certificate, police records, a bank statement and others, although the fees to apply
have increased. Those who already have permanent residency will pay $810 to start the process to become a belonger, while those seeking both residency and belonger status will pay $1,500.

Under the “fast track” plan, those who are successful will go straight from residency to belonger status instead of waiting a year in between as the current law requires, Mr. Fahie has said.

However, the premier has insisted that although the process
is to be accelerated, it won’t fundamentally change. Nobody will be granted status based solely on length of time in the territory, he explained during a meeting last week with
hundreds of potential applicants.

Applicants queue outside the Road Town Police Station last week to request
the police reports required to apply for residency. Police said they have
processed more than 1,000 requests since the “fast track” was announced. (Photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

Instead, he said, they will be required to show proof of some
kind of “contribution to the community,” whether in church,
community service or otherwise. In addition, “about 20” temporary Immigration Department employees will help interview
applicants and administer the required exam on VI history and
culture, according to the premier.

Fierce opposition

When he unveiled the plan earlier this month, Mr. Fahie
urged residents not to let “scepticism and fear [of foreigners]
cast a shadow on what is right and just.”

He added, “The hundreds of people who are likely to apply
under this programme are people we all know too well. They are
our neighbours and our church members. They already work
alongside us.”

Consequently, he said last week, he will not keep “kicking
the can down the road” on immigration — a point he reiterated
when he spoke Monday night during a community meeting at
H. Lavity Stoutt Community College.

“We either deal with this problem now on our own or somebody is going to deal with it for us very soon in a manner that
we all will regret — both the Caribbean and the indigenous
Virgin Islander,” he said.

Such assurances aren’t good enough for a group of Virgin Islanders including BVI Tourist Board officer Cindy Rosan-Jones, who attached her name to a petition aimed at Mr. Fahie
that is intended to “categorically oppose the flawed premises used to support your illegal move and express our disappointment in the process you have taken to blindside our people.”

The petition also questions the motivation for the rushed
one-week rollout, and accuses the premier of having “strategically left BVIslanders and belongers out of the equation.”

Signatories called for more long-term immigration reform, claiming the fast track was inconsistent with the Virgin Islands Party’s 2019 manifesto, which promised to “conduct a
comprehensive study on immigration” and to “review and revise
the current immigration policy in relation to permanent residence and belonger status.”

What the law states

As of late Tuesday, the petition had 115 signatures. On Friday, opponents scored a victory when the premier put the brakes
on his plan to push through the first, second and third readings of a proposed amendment to the Immigration and Passport Act,
which would be needed for all parts of the planned programme
to take effect.

The legislation — which was approved by Cabinet during a
special meeting on May 7 —- would amend Section 16, subclauses four and five, which require a one-year waiting period
for belongership after residency is granted, according to the Cabinet decisions published last Thursday The existing act states that belongership can be granted by Cabinet, in consultation with the Immigration Board, to anyone
“of good character” who “has been so ordinarily resident in the
territory for the period of not less than ten years immediately prior to his or her application.” In
contrast, a certificate of residency can legally be granted after any length of time.

That leaves the specific residency requirement for both statuses largely up to the government’s discretion. Until recently, it had been set at 20 years to apply for residency, and successful residency applicants had to wait a year after approval to apply for belongership.

The bill also includes an amendment to Section 18 and
24 of the act, to “give the minister responsible for immigration
discretionary powers to allow persons to land and remain in
the territory” and for a “sunset time period” of June 30, 2019 for the regularisation process, according to last week’s summary
of Cabinet decisions.

‘Voice of the people’

In withdrawing the legislation from its second and third readings, the premier acknowledged that “you always have to listen to the voice of the people and come up with a product that everyone can live with — and if not, then at least that most persons can, because you can’t please everyone.” He subsequently announced two “listening town hall meetings” in order to have the “fruitful discussions” that opponents to
the plan claim they didn’t get the first time around: one on Monday at HLSCC and one today at 7 pm. at the Catholic Community Centre in Virgin Gorda.

In response to a question by Third District Representative
Julian Fraser in the Friday HOA meeting, Mr. Fahie also revealed
the number of belongerships granted in the last year: the number issued from Jan. 1, 2017 to Feb. 10, 2018 was 47 by marriage
and 28 by tenure, for a total of 75. The number issued from Jan.
1, 2018 to Feb. 10, 2019 was 48 by marriage and 69 by tenure, for a total of 115.

Pulling the amendment has delayed the launch of the fasttrack programme until further notice, government announced this week. For weeks already, applicants have been queuing up in the
Road Town Police Station to apply for police reports, requiring police to schedule additional staff to serve them all. On Monday, Police Information Officer Akia Thomas confirmed that more than 1,000 such reports had been processed since May 7. Previous applicants were not required to provide another report, so the total number of applicants could be much higher.

Why now?

Meanwhile, one of the most common refrains expressed by
critics of the programme is: “Why now?” During a meeting with the premier on Friday afternoon, which was streamed live on Facebook, attorney Jamal Smith questioned whether the Attorney
General’s Chambers had time to review the proposed legislation to determine whether the VI Constitution was being “breached.”

Specifically, he cited Section 12(1), which states, “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.” Mr. Smith claimed the clause “does not allow for things like amnesty provisions, which whatever
you want to call it, this is an amnesty.”

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “amnesty” as “the act of an authority (such as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.”

The premier had been quoted previously as calling for
an “amnesty” for foreign-born residents, but he has not used the
term since formally unveiling the fast-track programme.

Others at the Friday meeting said they felt “betrayed” by the
premier, whom Noreen Callwood-Lewis addressed as “a son
of the soil” who they had expected to look after the interests
of Virgin Islanders. “This seems like it just came
out of the blue,” said Ms. Callwood-Lewis, who explained that
her husband was from St. Vincent and she has nothing against
foreigners.

She urged the government to slow down and start out by studying the issue and all its possible consequences.
“Something of this magnitude has major consequences of
which we don’t even know,” she said. “Status in this country
should be a privilege, not a right.… When persons came to this
place, they knew the laws. Nothing was guaranteed to them.”

She also reiterated the contention that foreigners had an escape
hatch after the 2017 hurricanes. “Every country on the planet
sent a plane to evacuate their people,” she said. “But myself and other BVIslanders, we stayed here.”

Claudia Hodge, whose husband was from St. Kitts and who
said she has lived in the United States for 20 years, questioned
whether those granted residency are truly “the best of the best.”

“Everyone who comes to this country wants every law to accommodate them. … When are we [VIslanders] going to be the most important people of this country? We just can’t keep going willynilly, opening the floodgates.”

After the HOA sitting on Friday, Ms. Rosan-Jones spoke to reporters and apologised to anyone who she said might have
taken the group’s comments the wrong way.

“[It] doesn’t mean that we don’t like you or want you to be
happy and comfortable,” she said. “We just want to make sure that when we pass on that our children can still remain here if they would like to.”

Speaking up

On Monday, hundreds packed the HLSCC auditorium, where feedback ranged from practical suggestions for improving the new programme to passionate defences of the rights of
VI natives. The first speaker from the audience, Winston Nibbs, objected to non-belongers being invited to the session at all,
claiming that the meeting should be exclusive to “indigenous Virgin Islanders.”

However, in the end, only one non-belonger spoke up for
the approximately two-hour long session. That woman, Kim
Huish, is a tourism-industry veteran who said she was granted
permanent residency a little less than a year ago after arriving in the territory 25 years ago from the United Kingdom with $100
to her name.

“I made the decision probably about five years in that this
was home,” she said. “But I was not able to regularise.”

She also stayed during and after the 2017 hurricanes.

“One, I was lucky: My house
wasn’t too bad,” she said. “Two, I had nowhere else to go.”

When it comes to immigration, though, she thinks the Irma
debate is largely beside the point. “Everybody who left had a
good reason,” she said. “Some local people left, too, because they had no homes.”

She dismissed the fear — raised again earlier in the night —
that the newfound ability of foreign-born residents to buy land
would drive up prices since land in the VI has always been only for those who could afford it “Either you have the ability
already … or you don’t and you’re not going to get land,” she said.

‘My dream’

Ms. Richmond, the Jamaican waitress, said she dreams of owning a home in the VI, and not having to worry about being
forced to leave.

“I have nothing but a bank account and furniture, so I feel
like it would help me to further my future, my dream,” she said,
adding that she never considered asking the territory to bend the rules to accommodate her. “I never thought about the residency; I never thought about belonger [status]. Never, never, never until the 7th of May” when
Mr. Fahie announced the plan.

She added that she didn’t even want to apply at first, “but
my friends say it’s an opportunity to go ahead and do it.”

However, after reading dozens of hostile social media comments, she’s starting to reconsider applying, at least under the fast-track plan.

“Sometimes you’re around people and you feel like you’re
comfortable: ‘This is my brother, this is my sister.’ And to hear certain things, it’s kind of hurtful,” she said, adding that she has begun to think she should “go and
get my visa because these people do not want me to be here.”

’If not now, when?’

Ms. Huish acknowledged that some of the comments about the new plan have been ugly on both sides of the debate.

The number of potential applications, she added, is “a big
number and it is very scary and there are genuine fears and genuine concerns.” She also suggested that the premier might consider clearing the backlog of applications first
instead of trying to grant status to so many people at once.

In his response to the feedback, Mr. Fahie countered accusations that the plan was rushed, saying, “If not now, when?” Still, he promised to consider adjusting the 15-year residency requirement, and to work on the longterm immigration reform many
requested. He also urged meeting attendees to support the effort.

“Bring me some solutions, because doing nothing is not an
option that I exercise as a leader,” he said. “We are going
to get something done to fix the problem.”


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