Sham marriages addressed

Immigration officials have enlisted Cayman’s marriage officers in their effort to prevent marriages entered into for the purpose of gaining benefits under the Immigration Law.

Marriage officers

Marriage officers listen to a presentation.
Photos: Carol Winker

Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson described such unions as marriages of convenience, adding that they were also referred to in the UK as sham or bogus.

Mr. Manderson was the opening speaker at a workshop held last Wednesday for marriage officers and civil registrars of marriage. Organisers said 66 people are licensed to witness and register marriages in the Cayman Islands; 38 attended the workshop.

Participants were reminded they are legally obligated to report to the Immigration Department if they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that a marriage will be a marriage of convenience. That obligation extends to before, during and immediately after the solemnisation of the marriage.

A first offence by a marriage officer makes him or her liable to a fine of $5,000 and imprisonment for one year.

Workshop material included a two-page form for reporting suspicions.

Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Dennis Brady addressed the issue of what is reasonable suspicion. He provided marriage officers with sample questions they could ask couples who say they want to be married. In general, the questions explore how well the man and woman know each other.

Assistant Immigration Officer Jeannie Lewis assured workshop participants that the department’s enforcement section would answer their queries regarding the immigration status of persons wishing to marry Caymanians.

Christine Wright, corporate manager in the Chief Secretary’s office, said consideration is being given to the publication of marriage banns in a local newspaper seven clear days before the ceremony.

Chief Secretary George McCarthy set the tone for the three-hours-plus session with his welcoming remarks. ‘I am fully aware that you are persons of the highest integrity and want to be satisfied that the institution of marriage is not abused for selfish ends,’ he told the marriage officers.

He asked them to work with law enforcement officials to stop the abuse.

Mr. Manderson said marriage is ‘a great thing… but we have been seeing a lot of strange reasons why people get married these days – not love, not affection, but to gain benefits under the Immigration Law.’

Those benefits include the right to live and work here. But Mr. Manderson said he has seen cases of criminals wanting to marry in the Cayman Islands so they can carry out their activities here.

Mr. Brady, a former police officer, said it was easier to prevent a marriage of convenience than it was to prosecute someone for it afterwards.

‘A marriage of convenience cannot happen unless there is a facilitating Caymanian,’ he agreed, ‘but you cannot abandon your responsibility.’

He emphasised that marriage officers were not being asked to be investigators for the Immigration Department and they were not being asked to prove their suspicions were correct. But suspicions should be reported to the department, where officers would look into the matter.

Marriage officers received what was almost a mini-seminar on what is reasonable suspicion, complete with principles from case law. Reasonable suspicion, they heard, must be founded on fact – some concrete basis that can be evaluated by an objective third person.

A person’s nationality, hair style or mode of dress is not a reasonable ground for suspicion, Mr. Brady pointed out. Each case has its own circumstances, but suspicion should be aroused by the presence of something unusual or unexplained.

The list of questions he provided for marriage officers to ask the couple was not exhaustive, he said. The officers may well have devised their own questions. But Mr. Brady suggested that officers write down the couple’s answers to the questions so that an objective third party could see whether it was reasonable to be suspicions on the basis of fact.

He also touched on the subject of term limits. Just because someone is coming to the end of his or her legal stay in Cayman, the marriage officer should not immediately suspect a marriage of convenience. There are people who have been in a relationship for a long time, he said. When the time approaches for the non-Caymanian to leave, the Caymanian decides he or she does not want ‘the love of my life’ to go away.

Donnell Dixon, Senior Assistant Registrar General with the General registry Department, discussed procedures for filing a marriage register. He went through the required forms, an eight-page handbook for marriage officers and other material in circulation since the late 1980s.

Human Resources Officer Sharon Seales shared information about special licences and legal requirements. She revealed that there were over 700 issued in 2007 for marriages in which neither person resides in the Cayman Islands.

Pastor John Jefferson Sr. commended the organisers of the workshop. He offered his assurance that ‘Everyone wants to make sure everything is done for the benefit of the country as a whole.’

Pastor Marquiss McLaughlin led questions about situations in which he refused to marry a couple and later learned they had gone to someone else and been married.

Mr. Brady said maybe the time had come for there to be a co-ordinator so that such information could be exchanged. Mrs. Wright assisted with suggestions as to how marriage officers could more easily communicate with each other.

The workshop was held in the Reliable Industries conference room. Pastor Robert Thompson, chairman of the Cayman Islands Ministers Association, offered the opening prayer.