Cayman Islands lawmakers have approved major changes to how work permits will be handled in the future, including the requirement that fingerprints be taken from work permit applicants as a condition of employment.
Legal changes unanimously approved Wednesday in a key vote on the Immigration (Amendment) Bill, 2008 will also allow the islands’ Immigration Department to process and award or deny work permits for all non-controversial permit applications. Those are generally considered to be applications where no qualified Caymanian has applied for the position.
The amendment will also require non-Caymanian permanent residents, those foreigners who have attained the right to live in Cayman for the rest of their lives, to maintain a level of investment here similar to the one they had upon application for permanent residence.
After a few minor amendments are made, the bill will have a procedural third vote in the house before being sent to the Governor for ratification. That vote is expected to happen within the next week.
Legislative Assembly members from both political parties supported the changes, which they said would speed up the work permit process, and clarify certain areas of the law.
‘This system will significantly reduce the number of work permit applications going to the Work Permit Board and Business Staffing Plan Board,’ Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said. ‘The board will now be able to focus closely on difficult or sensitive applications and the issue of key employee applications.’
Opposition MLA Rolston Anglin said the bill ‘will go a long way to tidy up and rectify a number of complaints that you get from time to time about immigration matters.’
‘It’s not easily dealt with or solved,’ Mr. Anglin said. ‘However, I think this is probably as good as you’re going to get it.’
Changes which eased the burden on the Work Permit Board in particular were proposed more than a year ago by Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson. Mr. Manderson said at one time that the board was taking an average of three months to process routine permit applications.
Mr. Manderson said he hopes to get that processing time down to two weeks for each application.
The various boards will still have the final word on any work permit application that comes before them. Immigration staff will not handle key employee or permanent resident applications.
Mr. Tibbetts said the Immigration Department would perform frequent audits to ensure its employees were processing permit applications correctly and in a timely fashion.
‘I’m not going to allow the thought to stay in my mind that we can trust the boards, but that we can’t trust those individuals (who work for immigration),’ he said during the LA debate on the Immigration Law changes.
The amendment to the law approved by the legislature also creates two new categories of work permits. One is for seasonal, temporary workers; generally those in the tourism, hospitality and dive industries. The other permit is for short-term workers such as concert promoters, entertainers and the like.
Under the revised law, tourism industry employees who only come for a season can get a special eight-month work permit, after which they must leave the island for at least three months. Mr. Manderson said those workers, if they returned for a number of seasons would still be subject to the seven-year term limit on residency as are other private sector workers.
Temporary work permits for things like concerts or other entertainment acts can be granted by the Immigration Department after the local cultural foundation and music association have reviewed the content and nature of the act. Anyone who’s part of a show in Cayman who does not get a temporary permit would not be allowed to perform.
Once the changes take effect, all current work permit holders in the Cayman Islands, as well as those who have been granted a new permit, will be fingerprinted electronically as a condition of their employment.
Prospective workers can refuse to be fingerprinted, but it means that their work permit application is likely to be refused by the Immigration Department or the Work Permit Board.
The proposal has caused some controversy in Cayman’s expatriate community. A recent poll in the Caymanian Compass suggested the majority of respondents felt everyone in the islands, including Caymanians, should have their prints taken.
Mr. Manderson said the fingerprinting could well be expanded to include permanent residents, foreign students and foreigners working here on government contracts. Caymanian passport holders are also expected to have to begin providing biometric data for their passport renewals in the next year or so.
The Immigration Department does not have the technology in place to start taking fingerprints immediately. Also, Mr. Manderson said officials have not determined precisely who will have access to immigration’s fingerprint database, although he said anyone who provides fingerprints will be informed about who will have access to the system.
All new job applicants whose work permits have been accepted will be fingerprinted on arrival at Owen Roberts Airport, Mr. Manderson said. Current permit holders will have to be fingerprinted as well, though how that will be done hasn’t been determined.
‘We’re not going to have everyone running down to the Immigration Department on the same day,’ Mr. Manderson said. ‘We’re going to try and make this as seamless as possible.’
The Caymanian Compass has received comments, both signed and unsigned, from letter writers who have opposed the fingerprinting proposal, calling it ‘a humiliation’ and a ‘presumption of guilt over innocence.’
Bodden Town MLA Osbourne Bodden took issue with those comments Wednesday.
‘All over the world now, we see this (fingerprinting),’ Mr. Bodden said. ‘It is necessary to combat identity crime. I say ‘get used to it.”
‘Why is it every time we in the Cayman Islands do something to help ourselves, someone else from some other country wants to criticise it?’
Permanent residents in Cayman will be required to maintain a minimum level of investment in order to keep their status in the islands under the Immigration (Amendment) Bill, 2008.
Mr. Manderson said this measure is aimed at curtailing ‘mischief’ in permanent residency applications where someone buys a piece of undeveloped land just before they make their application. Following the success of that application, he said the property owner sells it and maintains no similar level of investment in the Cayman Islands.
‘You are led to believe sometimes that the assets have been borrowed,’ George Town MLA Alfonso Wright said. ‘This is one of the areas where people have been taking advantage of us.’
Permanent residence can be revoked for a number of reasons under the Immigration Law, including situations where the residence-holder becomes destitute. However, Mr. Manderson said this proposal is not aimed to punish those who’ve simply fallen on economic hard times.
‘It’s certainly not meant to prohibit someone from seeing a better deal somewhere else and going and buying another piece of property,’ he said. ‘I’m sure the (Permanent Residence and Caymanian Status) Board is not going to argue over a thousand dollars in value. But it needs to be reasonable.’
‘If you simply do away with all of the assets that you acquired to be a permanent resident, the question that begs itself is then, should you be able to keep it?’
Not bashing expats
Lawmakers insisted during the course of their debate that these latest changes to the Immigration Law were not about punishing expatriates.
‘We have to be able to manage migration,’ George Town MLA Lucille Seymour said. ‘It is this house of legislators that have to ensure that Caymanians benefit from the very thing businesses are seeking. We are trying to ensure…that a work permit does not keep a Caymanian from getting a job.’
‘(Expatriates) come here to drink milk, and there’s nothing wrong with that…as long as they don’t touch our cows,’ Ms Seymour added.
Mr. Bodden said that further revisions to the Immigration Law may be needed as time goes on and that government needed to be vigilant to keep up with changing economic times.
‘It’s not a piece of legislation we can leave alone for long period of time,’ he said.