An overwhelming majority of the Legislative Assembly has agreed to controversial changes to the Cayman Islands law that governs how immigrant workers get into the country and how long they can stay.
The house voted Wednesday evening on a second and third reading of the Immigration (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, 2006.
‘This bill, I don’t believe, requires any more debate,’ said Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts just before Wednesday’s vote was taken.
The most contentious issue, referred to as the term limit or rollover policy, stayed in the bill. The measure requires foreigners living in the Cayman Islands on work permits to leave after seven years, unless they are granted key employee status by the Cabinet. Those determined to be key workers can stay up to nine years, during which time they can apply for permanent residency.
The law prevents any term limited employees from returning to the Cayman Islands on a new work permit for at least one year. In the 2003 amendments to the law, that time limit was two years.
Government employees are not affected by the term limits, however Mr. Tibbetts has said that issue may be reconsidered in future meetings of the LA.
The amended law allows people born in the Cayman Islands between 27 March, 1977, and 1 January, 1983, who as British Overseas Territories Citizens to apply for the right to be Caymanian citizens. It also virtually guarantees permanent resident status to anyone who had been living here at least 15 years as of 1 January, 2004.
Last week, Mr. Tibbetts announced that the government would suspend Legislative Assembly Standing Orders to allow the debate on the bill this week because lawmakers were essentially under the gun.
Changes to the law, which were made in July, forbade the Chief Immigration Officer from granting any fixed-term work permits after 31 December, 2006.
Mr. Tibbetts said any people reaching the end of their seven-year term limit might have missed the chance to apply for key employee status if the amendments to the law were not passed quickly.
The key employee designation by Cabinet, which has been another controversial section of the amended law, requires the category of workers designated meet specific criteria. According to the legislation, the designated profession must meet one of the following three criteria:
• that there is a global shortage of employees in the job,
• there is an economic desire to attract certain types of businesses to Cayman,
• that there is difficultly in bringing in or keeping particular professionals.
Any key employee designation made by Cabinet is subject to review by the entire Legislative Assembly.
Works and Infrastructure Minister Arden McLean said businesses shouldn’t expect every key employee status application to get the green light.
‘It’s going to be hard for me to accept somebody’s got 30 to 40 employees and everybody there is a key employee,’ Mr. McLean said.
Opposition MLA Rolston Anglin said the Cabinet’s ability to exempt certain employees caused him great concern.
‘That should be left with the legislative arm of government,’ said Mr. Anglin. ‘This is the public’s house.’
Amendments to the bill are scheduled to take effect at the beginning of next month.
A bitter debate
MLA’s argued the issue well after dark had fallen Wednesday night.
When the time came for the key second reading of the bill, the majority of Opposition party members weren’t even present in the chamber.
Voting for the amendments were: Mr. Tibbetts, Education Minister Alden McLaughlin, Health Minister Anthony Eden, Tourism Minister Charles Clifford, Chief Secretary George McCarthy, Attorney General Sam Bulgin, Financial Secretary Kenneth Jefferson, MLA Lucille Seymour, MLA Alfonso Wright, and MLA Osbourne Bodden.
Mr. Anglin was the lone no vote on the bill’s second reading.
Opposition MLA Capt. Eugene Ebanks abstained on the vote. Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush was not present in chamber for the second vote, though he did vote no on the bill’s third reading.
The government generally urged protection of rights and opportunities for native Caymanians. Mr. McLaughlin blasted what he called a ‘constituency of darkness,’ which he said was trying to cause a divide among Caymanians and expatriates.
The constituency of darkness he referred to included several members of the local media, who he felt were undermining the country.
‘Somehow it is a terrible thing to discriminate in favour of your nationals, to give them a chance to own a little piece of this rock which is increasingly out of the reach of the average Caymanian,’ said Mr. McLaughlin. ‘In very short order the persons who have no historical place here will overwhelm the people who do. If we don’t control the population growth, there will be a social disaster.’
The Opposition characterized the Government’s amendments as an attempt to marginalise the previous administration’s immigration reform efforts, the framework of which will remain intact even after the amendments were passed.
‘They go off half-cocked and declare the 2003 Immigration Law to be a disaster area,’ said Mr. Anglin. ‘The intent was to discredit what was done. ‘Let’s take it, and paint it red, and make it a PPM product.”
When the LA resumed its meeting Wednesday afternoon, the entire opposition bench was empty. Ms Seymour took up her debate with all government members in attendance, but no one sitting across the room.
‘I don’t know why,’ (they were not there),’ said Ms Seymour. ‘All of us should be interested.’
Later on, Mr. McLaughlin made some stinging comments about Mr. Bush and quipped ‘I sense that I have somehow upset the Leader of the Opposition.’
Mr. Bush fired back ‘you are insulting, but not enlightening.’ He got up and left shortly after, and Opposition again deserted the chamber for a lengthy section of Mr. McLaughlin’s debate.