25TH JULY 2022
STATEMENT ON IMMIGRATION STATUS REFORM
BY PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE DR. HON. NATALIO D. WHEATLEY
Fellow Virgin Islanders,
As the final week of July commences, the Government of National Unity continues to forge ahead on reform. We have made good progress in June and July in a number of areas. However, some of the most difficult issues lie ahead. As a society, we must be prepared to meaningfully engage with each other, but in a constructive and civilized manner.
The topic of immigration reform is one of the most sensitive issues that we must address. A dialogue must begin in earnest on what is in the best interest of the Virgin Islands, beginning with the granting of residency status for the purpose of belongership. Like most other countries, the Government of the Virgin Islands has an immigration regime in place to select persons to whom residency can be granted that have been living and working in the Territory and participating in community life.
However, residency for belongership is a privilege, not a right. It is important to make this clear. And because residency for this purpose is a privilege and not a right, Government has developed arrangements by which to determine who has earned that privilege.
Here in the Virgin Islands, residency for belongership is not automatically granted based on the duration of time in the Territory. And the number of years spent cannot be the sole determining factor in granting belongership. Patriotism, a sound knowledge and history of the Virgin Islands and your social and civic contributions to the society are all very important things, among other factors. Residency and belongership are privileges that must be earned. In addition, there is a socio-economic dimension that must be considered when granting residency for belongership in terms of what the society can reasonably accommodate and sustain over time.
Over the years in the Virgin Islands, Governments have instituted various arrangements to determine who has earned the privilege of residency for belongership. The existing eligibility criteria contained in the Immigration and Passport Act was put in place over twenty years ago. It was passed in the House of Assembly, which at the time was referred to as the Legislative Council. This law permits persons to apply for residency for belongership as early as 10 years of living in the Territory.
A subsequent Government who saw the amended law as open-ended, convoluted and unsustainable because it would change the social fabric and political landscape of the Virgin Islands, adopted a policy in Cabinet in 2004 that doubled the duration of time to 20 years before an application for residency for belongership could be made, and limited the number of persons that could be approved annually for residence to 25. However, the legality of that policy was questioned in a report by the Complaints Commissioner as early as 2013, due to its inconsistency with the law. The policy’s contradiction of the law was also captured in the annual report of the International Ombudsman Institute 2012/13. This problem was also picked up on during the Commission of Inquiry. The Commission of Inquiry report recommended a review of the existing residency policy and processes for granting residency and belongership status, including the open discretion by Cabinet to grant such statuses, and the length of residence required for belongership, among other things.
Where we find ourselves today is that we have an immigration law on the books that allows for applicants to apply for residency for the purpose of belongership after 10 years, and sets no set limit on how many applications can be approved per year. We also have had a policy in place for some time that is inconsistent with that law, because it doubles the time required to begin application for residency for belongership and severely limits the number of approvals per year. Both the existing law and longstanding policy are not fit for purpose and have been the cause of much confusion. The answer has always been to further amend the Immigration and Passport Act, as opposed to the various fixes that have been tried.
However, as I said earlier, residency for the purpose of obtaining belongership is a privilege, and not a right. It is not automatically given after a decade in the Territory. So, while applications for residency for such a purpose can be submitted as early as 10 years under the law, there is a process that must be followed to consider whether applicants have earned the privilege of being granted residency.
Previous Governments have failed to amend the law or change policy as was previously recommended, but the Government of National Unity will do so in a manner that is clear, fair, and socially and economically sustainable. However, we are not going to make any legislative amendments without consulting the public.
This is why we must begin a structured dialogue to find the best way forward. We will be announcing public meetings very soon. They will be complimentary to the review of the existing immigration review that will begin by the end of September, that will also help inform any changes to be made.
In the meantime, work will continue in the Immigration Department to ensure that all records are up to date and accounted for and that the administrative systems and processes of the department are working.
I want to close by calling once again for unity and a sense of common purpose as we forge ahead in this new era of democratic governance. I am confident that as a community we will be successful in our current endeavours.
The Government of National Unity will continue to work in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands.
I wish everyone a successful week.