Within the past two years, the number of businesses offering immigration consulting services in the Cayman Islands has jumped significantly, sparking a debate over how these services are used and whether they are really necessary in the migration process.
There are at least 15 different companies listed in the Cayman phone books as providers of immigration services; some are law firms, others are human resources companies and still others specialise in immigration services alone.
At last count, more than 24,000 people held work permits in the Cayman Islands. With the complexities surrounding applications for various types of immigration status such as key employees, permanent residents, citizenship applications and immigration appeals, experts said they often find their services in high demand.
‘Some aspects of the law are complicated, including some of the issues relating to correct calculations of term limits and criteria for key employee designations,’ said attorney Nick Joseph of Appleby. ‘What might appear obvious to a long established Caymanian HR professional as to the sort of things that an (immigration) board might expect from a business, it can seem a little bit strange to somebody who is coming from North America or Europe, in particular, who is not yet familiar with the concept of immigration authorities playing a role in the labour policies of a country.’
Mr. Joseph said he does not normally get involved in routine applications for work permits, unless they’re being done en masse for large companies just moving to Cayman or for new senior hires. He said he tends to focus on potentially complex applications like those for permanent residency, key employee applications, or appeals of decisions made by the various immigration boards.
There are others who handle everything from filing appeals to mundane secretarial work.
‘A lot of people use my service because they just don’t have the time, or they don’t like filling out forms,’ said Sabrina Fennell, president of Cayman Immigration Consultant Services. ‘I take the stress out of the immigration process.’
Ms Fennell is one of several former employees of the Cayman Islands Immigration Department that have opened up a consulting business using their expertise and contacts to help customers wade through various applications Government requires.
She said she has accumulated a client list of about 60 businesses since opening in April, 2006, and admits she’s making a lot more money now than she did as assistant secretary for the Caymanian Status and Permanent Residency Board. Ms Fennell said she’s aware former immigration employees who’ve opened up these types of businesses have come under criticism from the department of late.
‘I don’t feel anybody…should tell you if you leave immigration or leave a bank that you can’t go on and open a consultancy,’ she said. ‘We’re not a communist country.’
The idea of an immigration consultant is actually nothing new for Cayman. In fact, the person thought to be the first to open such a business was former Chief Immigration Officer, the late John Bostock.
Mr. Bostock’s business, John D. Bostock and Associates, is run today by his wife and children. Joan Bostock said she believes the company opened its doors in the early 1990’s after her husband retired from the civil service.
‘He started a lot of it while he was actually CIO,’ Mrs. Bostock said. ‘People used to come in and say to him ‘they’ve done this, what do I do now?’ And he would sort everybody out, so he saw that there was a need for this.’
Mrs. Bostock said she believes it is appropriate for ex-immigration staffers to operate as consultants.
‘It’s better that they perform it than people who haven’t got a clue,’ she said.
Open for abuses
The government requires those operating immigration consulting businesses to have proper trade and business licences although some consultants said they are aware of certain people who operate without them.
But the Cayman Islands has not gone so far as to regulate the fees companies can charge for services, and those in the business admit not everyone’s operating above board.
‘I’ve had persons that come to my business who’d already applied for permanent residence,’ Ms Fennell said. ‘They wanted me then to take over their applications. I said: ‘What would I be doing for you? Your application’s already in there.’
‘I know for a fact that there have been some competitors marketing on this. How can they help those people?’
Mr. Joseph said the situation is made worse by unregistered companies that simply don’t follow the law and register for trade and business licences.
‘They put their law-abiding competitors at a disadvantage,’ he said. ‘Those companies will have a higher cost of doing business than those who don’t play by the rules.’
In the end, Ms Fennell believes under the radar operators and companies that rip off their customers won’t be able to stay in business.
‘If you’re in it for the wrong reasons, you won’t last,’ she said.