Belongership meeting
Hundreds of potential applicants gathered at the Multi-purpose Sports Complex earlier this year to learn about the new “fast-track” programme for residency and belongership. (Photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

Beginning yesterday, applicants for permanent residency and belongership have three weeks to apply to the Immigration Department for consideration under the modified “fast-track
programme” designed to clear the backlog of some 800 existing
applications while also processing new ones.

The plan, which is modified from one introduced earlier this year, is the first stage of more comprehensive immigration and labour reforms to be rolled out by the government, according to Premier Andrew Fahie.

“You would recall your government saying that this first phase is necessary for fast-tracking the processing of applications for resident and belonger status that are trapped in a backlog, as well as those of other potential applicants who have been living in the territory for very long periods of time,” Mr. Fahie said in a statement released Monday.

“I must reiterate that this is a one-time exercise for persons who have lived in the territory for 20 years and have contributed positively to the territory. It does not apply to persons who have newly arrived in the territory, and it will not open any floodgates for immigrants.”

The original fast-track plan had been scheduled for May and was intended to give foreigners who had lived in the territory for 15 years or more to apply and qualify as permanent residents and belongers. However, the original plan was scrapped after considerable outcry from some Virgin Islanders who called the
plan “flawed” and “illegal” and claimed that they had been excluded from the decision-making process. The premier subsequently embarked on a “listening tour” of concerns. On Monday, he said he’d heard enough to move forward.

“Having listened to the people, adjusted the policy accordingly, and having given the Immigration Department the time needed to put the necessary measures in place, it is now time to implement this fast-tracking programme,” he said.

New legislation

Even as the programme itself was postponed, in early June the House of Assembly went ahead and passed the Immigration and
Passport (Amendment) Act 2019, intended to clear a path for the fast-track programme and other promised immigration reform. Debate was minimal on the bill, with most of the opposition — who also claimed not to have been consulted on the plan — absent. Since then, would-be applicants have been waiting to hear if the programme would move forward.

“Your government listened to the comments from members of the public who attended the public meetings, wrote emails and letters, aired their views through the media and provided feedback in other ways, and we amended the policy to reflect the
wishes of the people,” the premier said.

Applicants

Some of the debate on the programme surrounded the character of those accepted as residents and belongers.

As before, the premier said, “Only persons who have met the existing criteria and who have been making good contributions to our society will qualify for consideration.”

He added that merely submitting an application would not guarantee its approval.

“Additionally, no procedural requirements are being circumvented. All applications will be subjected to the normal criteria, scrutiny and procedures, and only those applications that
meet the requirements will succeed,” he explained.

One of the modifications to the programme includes an opportunity for “third-generation” Virgin Islanders who were born outside the territory to return to the VI and regularise their status. They will have six weeks to apply.

As before, the programme will feature a fee hike from the regular application process. Those applying for belongership will pay $800, while those applying for residency and belongership will pay $1,500.

Third-generation applicants will also pay $800. “I wish to take this opportunity to implore all persons who are suitably qualified to participate in this exercise to do so,” the premier said.

“Persons who have relatives living abroad who may qualify as
third-generation descendants are urged to contact them and to alert them of the programme.”

More reforms

Mr. Fahie acknowledged that VI residents have long had concerns about the immigration and labour laws of the territory, and said this “first phase,” which involves clearing the backlog of
applicants, is necessary to embark on a more all-encompassing strategy for reform.

The fast-track, he said, will “shut the floodgates so that persons will no longer be able to remain unchecked in the territory for extended periods of time only for them to show up one
day with certain claims.”

The other reforms, he said, will put “stricter controls” on work permit applications and crack down on fraud.

“Your government has taken note of the cries of our people that they are being disadvantaged in the workplace; that arbitrary conditions are being attached to jobs to lock them out of opportunities,” he said. “We are aware that persons have been
flouting their statutory obligations with respect to income tax,
Social Security and [National Health Insurance].”

In order to help fill government coffers, he said, he had instructed ministers to enact new policies requiring all requests for work permit renewals to be accompanied by a good-standing certificate from NHI, Social Security and Inland Revenue. He
also told the public to expect more consultations in the future.


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