immigration policy web photo
Residents attend a meeting last October at the Elmore Stoutt High School as part of the public consultations that led to the new Immigration Policy published last week. (File photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

The government’s new Immigration Policy keeps in place a 20-year residency requirement for belongership applicants that the Commission of Inquiry previously deemed “unlawful” under the Immigration and Passport Act.

However, a planned amendment to the act could rectify the issue by changing the law to match the policy.

Approved by Cabinet and published last month, the new policy proposes a series of comprehensive reforms that leaders say will help ensure more transparent, fair and efficient handling of belongership applications and other immigration matters.

The policy was designed in part to address recommendations in the 2022 COI report, which strongly criticised the current belongership system.

‘It is unlawful’

One of the COI’s main complaints was the 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But the COI found that the government had long been using an unpublished policy under which belongership applications were measured against a 20-year residence requirement instead.

“The policy is unpublished and unpublicised: On the evidence, it appears to be a policy which has not been publicly recognised until this COI,” wrote COI Commissioner Sir Gary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 Immigration Policy leaves the 20-year residency requirement in place.

But Joseph Smith-Abbott — acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sustainable Development — told the Beacon last week that legislative amendments are in the works.

“The policy is not standing on its own, but it will serve as the basis for the pending amendment of the Immigration and Passport Act as part of the COI implementation processes,” Mr. Smith-Abbott wrote in response to Beacon queries about the issue.

However, he did not respond to a further request to confirm whether the planned amendments will extend the residency requirement in the act to 20 years to match the policy.

The Governor’s Office did not respond to a request to comment on the issue.

The new policy also proposes 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 10 years before applying for belongership.

Other initiatives

The policy recommends a raft of other initiatives as well, including immigration quotas to be set after reviewing population data and labour needs; a residency-for-investment programme; clearer requirements for screening applicants; and reforms designed to make the application process more transparent and less dependent on the discretion of elected leaders, among others.

Many of the policy’s proposals were recommended in a report by Kedrick Malone, a former permanent secretary who reviewed the belongership process in keeping with a COI recommendation.

In carrying out the review, Mr. Malone held extensive public consultations around the territory.

A balance

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said last month that the new policy is designed to balance economic growth, cultural integration and social stability.

“The new Immigration Policy proposes planning and decision-making processes that will inform the sustainable management of statuses granted,” he said.

“The policy was approved after a careful analysis of labour market needs, population density, the importance of fostering investment and availability of resources, which will ensure balanced growth.”

Mr. Smith-Abbott said the policy also aligns with the Public Service Transformation Plan, in part because of the public consultations held before it was drafted.