At least two dozen residents attended a meeting to discuss immigration policy last Thursday at the Elmore Stoutt High School. The meeting was one of six being hosted by the government after the House of Assembly tabled a review on belongership and residency last month. (Photo: RUSHTON SKINNER)

During a series of public meetings held over several days, residents got a chance to weigh in on potential government plans to create an immigration policy, amend the Immigration and Passport Act, and undertake other reforms related to residency and belongership.

Last Thursday evening at the Elmore Stoutt High School, at least two dozen residents asked questions and provided input to a panel composed of Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley; Joseph Smith-Abbott, the acting permanent secretary in the Tourism, Culture and Sustainable Development Ministry; Chief Immigration Officer Ian Penn; and Premier’s Office Assistant Permanent Secretary Malvern Brathwaite.

“The subject of immigration and how it should be managed deserves the full attention of our society, because it is a key component of assisting us in achieving our national development goals,” Dr. Wheatley said. “This is not just an exercise in policy formulation, but there will be a natural outcome from the proceedings and discussions on the policy to actually concretely amend the act to regularise whatever is ultimately decided.”

The meeting at ESHS was one of six being held across Tortola and the sister islands. The series is scheduled to wrap up today with an 11 a.m. meeting at the Methodist Church on Jost Van Dyke and a 6:30 p.m. meeting at the Catholic Community Centre on Virgin Gorda.

The report

The meetings are centred largely around a review that was recently completed by former public officer Kedrick Malone, whose 70-page report includes a wide range of detailed recommendations for comprehensive reforms of belongership and residency practices.

Mr. Malone, for instance, recommended the creation of clear policies to guide immigration, labour and population growth; incentives to bring Virgin Islanders home from abroad; limits on Cabinet’s discretion over belongership; more authority for the Immigration Board; and many other measures.

He also called for the public to get an opportunity to give input on the way forward.

The ongoing meetings are designed to do just that.

During the session last Thursday, Dr. Wheatley recounted a brief history of immigration in the Virgin Islands, explaining that it has led to rapid population growth over the last five decades.

Many immigrants, he added, have become prominent members of society.

“The story of immigration in our society, however, is not without its challenges,” Dr. Wheatley said. “Over the years, our society would have grappled with cultural and social tensions between natives and immigrants; labour competition between natives and immigrants; national security risks due to immigration; and infrastructural capacity challenges due to immigration.”

The premier said that any legislative changes should aim to address such issues in a way that benefits the territory and complies with international human rights standards.

The meetings, he added, should also help work toward a consensus on contentious issues such as the approach towards children of non-belongers born in the VI.

“These matters are not just legal or administrative, but profoundly affect the sense of belonging within our society,” he said.

Attendees’ input

Many meeting attendees expressed concern about whether their children and grandchildren who live abroad would be eligible for belonger status. The current Constitution allows for second- and third-generation Virgin Islanders born overseas to obtain belongership, and it grants status to children adopted by belongers.

“We would need a constitutional change to account for a fourth generation,” the premier explained.

Meeting attendees also recommended updating the belongership application system, and they called for greater transparency and clarity on the status of applications.

The officials on the panel responded by saying that such improvements are underway.

Visa waivers

Some attendees also complained about difficulties obtaining visa waivers for travelling to the United States VI.

Currently, the waivers must be attained through the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force, and one resident claimed that many people are prohibited from travelling under the programme because of a minor criminal offence they committed long ago.

Rushton Skinner contributed reporting for this story.