New border control measures aimed at giving the Virgin Islands more information about who is coming to the territory before they arrive passed the House of Assembly on June 16.
Ministers heralded the legislation as a way to address long-held complaints about the difficulty of passing through immigration.
The first act — which Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley introduced on March 27 — outlines what information captains arriving by air or sea must provide about their passengers before getting to the VI.
The bill allows passenger information to be shared with law enforcement, security agencies, and intelligence agencies at the national, regional and international levels. The relevant security agency can use passenger information to conduct screening against watch lists. However, the collected passenger information can be kept on file for only three years.
According to the bill, data can be collected about passengers’ complete travel itineraries, frequent flyer information, seat numbers, baggage information, ticket payment information and billing addresses, other travel documents, and “general remarks,” particularly for unaccompanied minors’ travel plans.
The required information doesn’t just concern paying travellers: The rules apply to crew members and any other person arriving in the territory as well.
Commercial and private aircraft would have to provide requested data at least 40 minutes before departing from the last port of call; vessels coming from outside the region would have to do so at least 24 hours before arriving; and regional vessels would have until one hour before arriving.
Failure to provide requested information could mean a $10,000 fine and a year imprisonment for captains and masters.
However, personnel could only be punished for giving inaccurate information if it was done on purpose or due to recklessness.
People also face a $5,000 fine and up to six months’ imprisonment for refusing to answer questions from authorities about the vehicle and people onboard.
Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley lent his support to the bill, which he said will help ensure that entering the VI will be a more efficient and pleasant experience while enhancing security.
“It will allow for the immigration officials now to scrutinise individuals’ information in advance of coming to the territory,” he said. “So if you have somebody, and there’s a red flag that pops up, you can actually stop that person from boarding the flight to the Virgin Islands.”
Dr. Wheatley said the act should also make entering the territory easier for people who aren’t flagged.
“Of course, you have to do your due diligence and you have to be vigilant, but certainly we would expect with a system such as this that the visitors coming through will have a more efficient and pleasant experience,” he said.
Members made minor amendments to the bill in closed-door committee and passed it. Mr. Wheatley said the new provision would allow government to ascertain if passengers are immunised against Covid-19, should a vaccine become available. A full version of the edited legislation will be available if the governor assents.
Mr. Wheatley said reforming labour and immigration is a “mammoth task,” but it is important for government to pursue advancements in digital systems.
“We have to be prepared for the post-Covid period, when borders reopen and travel is allowed again,” Mr. Wheatley said. “This is one of those things that will make travel easier and safer.”
Mr. Wheatley said though the immigration bill is brief, it brings the original legislation in line with provisions in its companion legislation. Seeing no public debate, the bill went to committee and passed with amendments.
The minister concluded that reform is needed for the territory’s immigration laws.
“We know the Immigration Act is very, very old, and there are plans to go through and do a whole rehash of both the labour and immigration acts,” he said.