Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley explains the Immigration and Passport Amendment Bill on May 16 in the House of Assembly. The bill passed with amendments on Friday. (File screenshot: HOA)

The Immigration and Passport Amendment Bill, 2024, passed with amendments on Friday after the House of Assembly returned from a closed-door committee session, according to HOA Public Relations Officer Linton Leonard.

The new version of the bill — which now awaits approval from the governor — has yet to be Gazetted.

But the originally Gazetted version proposed to establish a 20-year residence requirement for belongership applicants; establish an appeals process for belongership and residence applicants; set up an immigration quota system and a committee to monitor it; and provide a clearer belongership pathway for children of non-belonger parents who were born in the Virgin Islands, among other provisions.

The HOA was in committee for more than four hours discussing the bill. Members’ return was not livestreamed as usual on the HOA’s official YouTube channel, but Mr. Leonard told the Beacon this week that the bill passed unanimously with amendments.

COI recommendations

The bill is part of ongoing reforms recommended by the recent Commission of Inquiry. The COI strongly criticised the existing belongership system, noting a longstanding dissonance between law and practice in awarding belongerships based on length of residence.

The 1977 Immigration and Passport Act, the COI noted, allows someone to obtain belongership based on length of residence after they have lived in the territory for 10 years and they have held a certificate of residency for at least a year. But the COI found that the government had long been using an unpublished policy under which belongership applications were measured against a 20-year residence requirement instead.

“The policy is unpublished and unpublicised: On the evidence, it appears to be a policy which has not been publicly recognised until this COI,” wrote COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom. “It is unlawful. Since 2004, Cabinets of successive [Virgin Islands Party] and [National Democratic Party] administrations have known of this mismatch and have singularly failed to bring the policy in line with the law, either by requiring the Immigration Department and Board to apply the law or bringing forward legislation to change the requirement to one of 20 years.”

The new bill takes the latter approach.

Other COI reformsimm

The initially Gazetted version of the bill would also add other prerequisites for belongership applicants, including requiring demonstration of “community participation and solidarity,” “inclusivity and respect for diversity,” “respect for cultural heritage and integration,” and a “willingness to engage in cultural and social orientation.”

During the debate on the bill, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said he considers these provisions to be valuable additions.

“It is not, moving forward, going to be just about the amount of time that you’ve stayed in a place,” he said, adding, “But what I would like to know about is what has your contribution been to the territory of the Virgin Islands? What has been your contribution? And ultimately it has to be the contribution you made beyond what you’ve gotten paid for, because that is important if you’re dealing with love of a place.”

10-year minimum

A new immigration policy that Cabinet approved in April also advises allowing an applicant to obtain a certificate of residency after living in the territory for 10 years — and then requiring them to hold that certificate for another 10 years before applying for belongership.

The proposed bill did not include any such requirement for a certificate of residency, but Dr. Wheatley appeared to suggest that this provision could be added.

“You have to be here for a minimum of 10 years before you qualify for permanent residence,” Dr. Wheatley said when discussing the bill. “And not just that, you will have to be judged perhaps at a lower threshold for belonger status, but based on your contribution to the society.”

He added that there should be a campaign to educate the community on the process of qualifying for residency and belongership status.

The proposed legislation would also establish a committee that would determine “annual immigration quotas for residence or belonger certificates,” among other responsibilities.

Additionally, the bill would give applicants the right to appeal to an Immigration Appeals Board.

Also under the proposed legislation, children who are born in the VI to non-belonger parents would have a pathway to belongerhip once they turn 18.

Another proposed amendment regards spouses who have been married to a belonger for at least five years and therefore qualify for belongership.

Under the bill, such spouses would be prohibited from remarrying and providing the qualifications for belongership status to a new spouse.