For decades, the government’s system for awarding belongership has been broken. It is inconsistent and unfair, and it lacks transparency.

Thus, much of the information about the topic aired recently in the Commission of Inquiry came as no surprise.

But many residents were nevertheless infuriated to learn that elected leaders apparently had considered granting belongership to two convicted criminals when many applications from law-abiding citizens have been effectively ignored for many years.

The anecdote was part of a much lengthier hearing detailing longstanding issues, but it highlighted the urgent need for comprehensive reform of a system that appears to be directed largely by the whims of government ministers.

To our thinking, there are two sides to the belongership story.

On the one hand, belonger status should be difficult to obtain. A long residency requirement and other strict prerequisites are necessary in part because of the territory’s small population, high quality of life, and outsize expatriate community.

Without tight rules, the territory’s native Virgin Islanders could quickly be outnumbered by newly minted belongers without roots here. Like any other country or territory, the Virgin Islands must protect its own people.

On the other hand, expatriates — many of whom have contributed to the community for decades — certainly have a right to be treated with fairness and decency.

But the current system of awarding belongership falls far short of that bar.

Despite government’s stated policy that expatriates must live here for 20 years before they are eligible, some lucky applicants have received the status much sooner — often for no good reason that we can see.

Others say they have waited much longer than 20 years without receiving so much as response to their application.

Clearly, something is not right.

The current government’s temporary “fast track” programme was a step in the right direction in some respects: Even though it was poorly organised and clumsily executed, it enabled many eligible applicants to finally obtain belonger status after years of waiting.

But since then, little has been said about the way forward. There appears to be no clear policy in place, and the COI testimony last week highlighted the fact that the government’s current process is out of step with the spirt of the law — if not outright illegal.

Moving forward, then, government should create and publish a clear policy that accords with the law. That policy should clearly outline the requirements for belongership and the specific steps needed to get there.
It should also include an explanation of exactly how applications are considered; detailed qualification criteria; a timeline for when applicants can expect a response; and a clear pathway for appeals, among other provisions.

We see no reason why all applicants who meet the residency requirement shouldn’t receive a response within six months. And if they are turned down, they should receive a full explanation for the rejection, as well as information about whether another application in the future might bring a different answer.

The policy also should include a special fast-track for people who came here as children. Today, many such residents do not have citizenship status in the only home they have ever known.

To be sure, immigration will always be a controversial issue in any community with a large expatriate population. But the VI government’s clumsy handling of belongership over the years has greatly exacerbated the problem.

Comprehensive reform is needed now.


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