Covid-19 continues to plague communities around the world, which government leaders said last week was a main motivator for passing harsher border-control legislation that could lead to a 10-year prison sentence for people who illegally enter the Virgin Islands.
Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley brought the Immigration and Passport Amendment Act 2021 for second and third readings on Aug. 26 in the House of Assembly.
Though the bill itself is brief, he said, it has “huge implications” for border management.
The proposed law — which now awaits the assent of Governor John Rankin — ups penalties for illegal entry tenfold: The current maximum of a $1,000 fine and a year of imprisonment would increase to a new maximum of a $100,000 fine and 10 years in prison on summary conviction.
Smaller fines for giving false testimony and other infractions were included as well.
Mr. Wheatley said drastic penalties are necessary given the possible consequences of unregulated entry amid the pandemic.
“It is an undesired pattern in the Virgin Islands to have illegal activities as it relates to persons landing in and departing from our shores, mainly for access to the neighbouring United States Virgin Islands,” Mr. Wheatley said.
He added that the Joint Task Force has been able to curb some crimes since the beginning of the pandemic, but stronger deterrents are needed.
The Immigration Department also has increased efforts to find and repatriate people who are in the territory illegally, Mr. Wheatley said, but he noted that such efforts are costly.
He added that the increase in fines should help offset the cost of detaining people waiting to be deported.
Stiff fines for people who enter illegally, smuggle someone into the territory, or harbour a suspect “will send a clear message that the government of the Virgin Islands has zero tolerance for these types of activities,” he said.
The substantial fine increase was guided by nearby territories like the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands, where he said fines of about $20,000 are not enough to effectively deter illegal entry.
The act would also empower the chief immigration officer to issue a warning or a fine without involving the courts.
Under the proposed law, immigration officers would also get more leeway with granting leave, allowing a person to stay in the territory without a permit for up to 10 months instead of six months.
Mr. Wheatley said this was based off feedback from homeowners who have to leave for half the year who otherwise would be stimulating the VI’s economy.
In making this change, he added, government was taking a risk to find new ways to grow the economy, but if the extension proves problematic legislators will bring an amendment to the House.
Opposition member Julian Fraser levelled criticism at the current effectiveness of border security given the need for sizable change in penalties.
Regarding the penalties, Mr. Fraser said the proposed law is too ambiguous in areas like the difference between entering the territory illegally and landing without permission, which only carries a maximum $10,000 fine. He predicted such grey areas could lead to inconsistent enforcement.
Mr. Fraser also took issue with a provision that penalises those who employ a person illegally living in the territory. Mr. Wheatley responded that it would be appropriate to amend the bill to ban “knowingly” harbouring or employing such people, though the bill ultimately passed without amendments after closed-door debate.
Mr. Wheatley said that doing nothing is not an option.
“To me, the current system doesn’t discourage anyone from trying to smuggle in here,” he added. “What is the worst that could happen to you? … We have to do something to create a deterrent.”