As part of government’s 2019 “fast-track” programme, Cabinet considered granting belonger status to two convicted criminals, including a man serving 10 years for rape in the United States, Commission of Inquiry Counsel Bilal Rawat said during a Tuesday hearing.
The disclosure came while Mr. Rawat was questioning Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister VincentWheatley near the end of almost seven hours of hearings about the process for granting belongership.
The COI — which also questioned Chief Immigration Officer Ian Penn and NRLI Permanent Secretary Joseph Smith-Abbott the same day —raised various concerns about the process, including a lack of transparency and inconsistencies between law, policy and practice going back more than 15 years.
Also addressed were the longstanding backlog of applicants and the temporary “fast-track” through which at least 1,273 people were granted status between July 2019 and February 2020.
The information about the two convicted criminals came from a memorandum about a 2019 Cabinet meeting, according to Mr. Rawat.
Reading from the document, he said that Cabinet considered the rapist’s application after Premier Andrew Fahie met with his parents, who told him that the US would allow their son to serve the remainder of his sentence in the VI.
However, the memo indicates that acting Governor Rosalie Adams, who was chairing Cabinet that day, argued that the “VI should not be a dumping ground for persons who did not behave in a good manner while overseas,” Mr. Rawat read.
Though Mr. Fahie made clear that he “was not condoning the crime,” he said that the VI was the only place the convict had ever known, according to the memo read by the counsel.
After the premier “conferred” with the other Cabinet members, they decided to defer his application for three weeks, Mr. Rawat read.
Mr. Wheatley, however, told the COI that he didn’t know if either convict ultimately was approved for belongership.
Mr. Rawat also asked him why Cabinet had considered granting the privilege to someone convicted of rape, especially considering the requirement that applicants be of “good character.”
Mr. Wheatley responded, “It was more of a humanitarian gesture in this case.”
He added, “I know his parents very well. They are upstanding persons. We were just trying to be sympathetic to their cause to have their son here with them.”
Asked about the other convicted criminal referenced in the memo, Mr. Wheatley said he knew him for his whole life and had attended school with him.
“The humanitarian in us said, ‘This is probably the right thing to do,’” he added.
Commissioner Sir GaryHickinbottom then rephrased Mr. Rawat’s earlier questions more bluntly.
“You made an assessment that these two people were of good character?” he asked.
Mr. Wheatley responded,“Yes, notwithstanding the situation they were in. Things happen to persons. It was a sympathy call more than anything else, just to bring some relief to the families.”
The COI also gave Mr.Wheatley a chance to respond to a “potential criticism” arising from the government’s 16-year-old practice of requiring most expatriates to reside in the territory for at least 20 years before their belongership application can be considered.
The Immigration and Passport Act, by contrast, states that belonger status can be granted to someone who has been “ordinarily resident” in the territory for only ten years before making an application, Mr. Rawat said.
Applicants who have read the act, Sir Gary noted, could reasonably expect to have their application considered after ten years, but their application in fact “gets put on the shelf.”
Mr. Rawat added, “The potential criticism that arises is that the policy that has been applied by Cabinet is one where … Cabinet has been acting unlawfully.”
By limiting consideration to applicants who have resided in the territory for at least 20 years, Cabinet also acted “inconsistently with the principles of good governance,” he said.
Mr. Wheatley responded that countries around the world face similar challenges with processing immigrants, and that the VI government is planning to hire a consultant to help address the inconsistencies highlighted by the COI.
“We have moved to address it,” he said, adding, “We are going to examine these things to make sure we are compliant.”
The COI also addressed the fast-track programme. The initiative, which ended in February 2020, included a temporary legislative amendment that allowed applicants to submit a “combined application” for residency and belongership instead of having to wait a year in between, Mr. Rawat explained.
Mr. Wheatley told the COI that before passing the legislative amendments in June 2019, he and other ministers hosted public meetings where they asked how long someone should be required to live in the VI before applying for belongership.
Although answers ranged from 15 to 25 years, the “popular demand” was that someone should have to live in the territory for 20 years before applying, Mr. Wheatley said.
But Mr. Rawat asked why the ministers did not then enshrine the 20-year timeframe into the amendments passed in June 2019 that created the fast-track programme.
“I really can’t say at this point in time why that wasn’t changed to 20,” Mr. Wheatley responded.
Mr. Wheatley added that theImmigration Department hired additional workers, including some retired immigration staff, to help handle an increase in paperwork related to the fast track.
But Mr. Rawat argued that none of these measures had the intended effect of clearing the existing backlog, because they incentivised more people to apply for belongership.
“How did creating a new basis for people to come and make applications … help with the backlog?” Mr. Rawat asked.
Mr. Wheatley responded,“Some of the persons … were already in the system,” and with the extra help, “The system is simply speeded up.”
Similar issues were addressed in questions posed to Mr. Smith-Abbott earlier in the day.
Reading from the minutes of a 2004 Executive Council meeting, Sir Gary said the Immigration Board cited a need to create a comprehensive immigration policy that considers economic and population growth instead of dealing with belongership in isolation.
Asked if he knows of such a policy, Mr. Smith-Abbott answered in the negative.
However, he added that after the 2004 EXCO meeting, new “administrative guidelines” came into play that were informed by the 2000 National Integrated Development Strategy, which was the culmination of a planning process under the National Ec-nomic Development Unit.
Those guidelines, he said, included the 20-year residency requirement, which he said immigration officials used to clear the backlog of applications.
Mr. Smith-Abbott added that the guidelines came into use sometime in 2005, but he couldn’t pinpoint exactly when.
How to get status
The COI also questioned Mr. Penn about the various ways in which belonger status isgranted.
Summarising information from the immigration chief, Mr. Rawat said that a person can acquire belonger status by birth or adoption; by having acquired British overseas territory citizenship; and by being deemed to belong under the 1976 constitution.
Mr. Penn confirmed that summary.
To become a naturalised belonger, a person must demonstrate good character; be ordinarily resident in the territory for at least ten years; have held a certificate of residency for at least 12 months; and prove that they intend to make the VI their permanent home, said Mr. Rawat, again summarising evidence from Mr. Penn.