Hard times bring immigration focus

Cayman Islands Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts acknowledged Tuesday that the first signs of the international financial crisis were beginning to hit home.

‘Here in the Cayman Islands we have already witnessed some reduction in the number of tourist visitors during this season,’ Mr. Tibbetts said. ‘We’ve also heard some businesses, both in the financial services and tourism sectors laying off both locals and foreign workers, or choosing not to renew work permits when they expire.’

Mr. Tibbetts’ remarks were made before a group of immigration officials from the Caribbean, the United States and the United Kingdom. The Association of Chief Immigration Officers was formed this week at an annual immigration conference held at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort with an eye toward cooperating on immigration and border security matters during difficult times.

Recent immigration statistics examined by the Caymanian Compass have not shown a large decrease in the number of work permits, but unemployment estimates in the islands have risen in the past year and it’s believed more than 1,300 Caymanians are now without work.

Efforts are being made by immigration officials and the Department of Employment Relations to place those individuals in jobs for which they are qualified. DER chief Lonny Tibbetts said recently that some 450 Caymanians had been placed in jobs within the past 10 months.

Acting Chief Secretary Donovan Ebanks told those gathered at the three-day immigration conference that they might be surprised ‘by the major labour management role that (Cayman’s) Immigration Department performs.’

‘It’s a role I would like to see us, in the future, divest of,’ Mr. Ebanks said at the opening of the conference. ‘Border control must remain (immigration’s) primary function.’

Mr. Tibbetts told the assembled immigration officials that the Immigration Department has to walk ‘a fine line’ between protecting the interests of indigenous workers and ensuring there were neither too few nor too many foreign workers on island.

He said adapting and adjusting migration management policies has been a major immigration focus in Cayman over the past decade.

In 1996, Mr. Tibbetts said, Cayman had a population of 33,000 people. Today, he said that number is closer to 55,000; an increase of about 66 per cent.

Figures compiled by the Compass recently indicate that population total may be closer to 65,000 people with non-Caymanians making up roughly half of the total residents.

In any case, Mr. Tibbetts noted that some 30,000 foreign residents from 125 different countries now call the Cayman Islands home, and improving work permit rules is not the only area immigration officials have to focus on.

Within the past two years, close to US$2 million has been spent in Cayman providing housing, food and care for illegal migrants, mainly travellers in makeshift boats who arrive from Cuba seeking jobs or fleeing that country’s Communist regime.

Mr. Tibbetts said improvements have been made to the appeal process by which individuals can seek protection, or asylum, in the Cayman Islands, although Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson has said most Cuban migrants come here as economic migrants and not political refugees.

Generally, illegal migrants are kept in a low-security detention centre in George Town and even allowed to leave that centre during the weekdays if they must stay here for extended periods awaiting repatriation.

‘Whilst the current economic situation is at the forefront…we must not lose sight of other migration management issues,’ Mr. Tibbetts said. ‘We must be vigilant and remove those persons who break our laws and effectively take away from our people.’