Chief Immigration Officer Linda Evans and her command staff members admit that convincing the general public of the need to enforce immigration crimes is often an uphill battle.
“A simple case of a helper who is working for someone else [without a permit]…it’s not looked at by the public as a serious issue,” said Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Bruce Smith. “The Caymanian public will look at other crimes that are occurring such as robberies and will compare that to an immigration offence and say that the immigration offence should not be a priority.”
“We’re looking at what offences could cause the greatest harm to the community,” Ms Evans said. “When someone is working outside the terms of their work permit, they could be keeping a Caymanian out of a job. The economic times the country is in puts the issue in perspective.”
Despite back-to-back government budget shortfalls, the immigration enforcement staff did get several new officers during the 2009/10 budget year. After spending a year or so in training at the Owen Roberts International Airport, they have begun to hit the streets.
The result: 250 immigration offences detected during 2010 – although not all of them were prosecuted due to an immigration amnesty that occurred during July.
But the vast majority of those crimes last year had nothing to do with the types of offences that keep immigration departments in larger countries in the Americas busy 24-7. Illegal immigration continues to be a relatively small problem in the Cayman Islands; in the past three years only 12 people have been arrested for illegally landing in Cayman.
“Not to say that we might not have a little bit more than that,” said Assistant Chief Immigration Officer Jeremy Scott, noting one case from last year in which a Jamaican man was arrested after sailing here with a boat full of drugs to sell and then allegedly committing robbery once the drugs he brought ran out.
However, such cases are admittedly rare. More often, it’s about someone trying to obtain and keep a job.
“The pull factor is employment,” Ms Evans said. “If they can’t get it legally, they’ll try to get it illegally.”
Generally, people who are simply working illegally in Cayman are not of great concern when it comes to committing other types of crime.
“The assumption is that they will not,” Ms Evans said. “It’s the visitor that’s here looking for work that raises more concern.”
Mr. Smith said the country’s visa system is more effective these days at weeding out some of those cases and illegal entry through the airport or ports is almost non-existent.
But it is the few that do land here illegally and who aren’t caught that cause immigration and other Cayman Islands law enforcement officials the most concern.
“Persons do hop on these [drug] boats,” Mr. Smith said. “If we could determine the frequency in which these boats do arrive here – years ago it was at the rate of about three or four a month – you will probably see a few passengers aboard those vessels and those persons will never report to us.”
Mr. Smith is willing to bet that more of these watercraft come to Cayman today.
“The transhipment of drugs into the US and Canada has not decreased. The supply is still there. That tells you that something is going on and the source of the stuff is from Central and South America and Jamaica. We have traditionally been used…as a transhipment point. We’ve seen major container loads being exported. We’ve found vessels coming in with a ton of marijuana. We’ve found drug boats scuttle off of our Islands, we’ve found drugs washing up on our shores.
“There’s a lot of activity going on around here. We can tell you what we’ve seized, but it’s difficult to measure what we don’t know about.”
In 2010, there were 88 people arrested for the crime of overstaying in the Cayman Islands. Those offences generally apply to foreign nationals without permanent resident status who stay beyond the terms of their visitor or work permits.
That figure does not include the 87 people who left voluntarily during the 2010 immigration amnesty who were beyond their time to stay; leaving the Islands with some 155 people in 2010 that were legally not allowed to remain, but who ended up here just the same.
How does this happen?
In most cases, Mr. Scott said, it really isn’t that person’s fault.
“The majority of offences for…overstaying we have identified [are] not those who have just entered here as a visitor and who have intentionally overstayed,” he said. “What we are finding predominantly is that those people who are actually overstaying….are through the process of putting in a work permit late.
“We’re not getting persons who are entering here and then absconding and saying I’m not going to be found. That does not appear to be one of our major issues, not to say that we don’t encounter them in isolated incidents. We have found one or two that knew they were overstaying and say ‘I’m just going to wing it as long as I can’.””
One fellow who left during the amnesty period had been here 12 years without legal residence.
“He had close Caymanian connections,” Mr. Scott said.
Rather, many overstayers simply don’t know their work permit hasn’t been put in on time by the employers. This means they are both working illegally and that they are not allowed to remain in Cayman unless they have permanent resident status.
It’s a problem the Immigration Department has never fully gotten its arms around. In 2008, 59 people were arrested for overstaying, and in 2009, it was 58.
It is a crime in the Cayman Islands to cause another person to overstay, and Mr. Scott said this would come up in the case of employers that let individuals keep working absent a timely permit application. There are also various cases of harbouring, but those are quite few and difficult to detect.
“It is because of a lack of evidence to progress with a case that you find those numbers to be very light,” Mr. Smith said.
Immigration also continues to see work permit violations taking place, but despite the increased enforcement, arrests in that area have fallen off within the past few years.
In 2008, there were 42 cases of individuals working without a permit. But in 2009, that number dropped to 19 and last year it was 26 violations.
“We’re still getting quite a few violations for people who work without permits,” Mr. Scott said. “But we differentiate those who have work permits and work outside of those.”
This is a trickier problem for immigration officers. It can occur, for instance, if someone is employed as a barber but supplements that work taking part-time carpentry jobs. In the Cayman Islands, that is illegal for a work permit holder, unless they already have another permit that allows them to do so.
There have been 11 arrests in each of the past two years of individuals working outside the terms of their permits.
“We do certain checks…but I would say 90 per cent of our offences are through reports that have been filed [by the public],” Ms Evans said.
Once again, it’s largely a staffing issue.
“There’s quite a number of reports we are not able to tackle simply because the number of staff that we have in the enforcement area,” she said. “It may be happening….we just don’t have the ability to capture all those offences. We never will have enough people.” Mr. Scott believes some immigration offences could be eliminated by nipping others in the bud. He points out that there have been nearly 50 cases over the last few years of employers making false representations on immigration forms.
“Where they’re saying we need this person for seven hours a day, five days a week when they’re really only working two days a week,” he said.
This can create a situation where someone who is employed part time has to go search for other work, putting them at risk of operating outside a permit and breaking the law. “If we highlight that, a lot of these other offences will be minimised,” Mr. Scott said.
The Immigration Department will implement two major initiatives later this year that it says will help keep better track of both visitors and work permit holders.
One is the establishment of a fingerprint registration for all work permit holders as a condition of their employment in Cayman.
Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Gary Wong said the department plans to place several fingerprint enrolment machines at locations like the airport and downtown in hopes of getting most of Cayman’s 20,000-plus work permit holders registered within a year. “We hope that it will be that quick, but that’s a lot of people to be enrolled,” Mr. Smith said.
The fingerprint database maintained by immigration will not be immediately accessible to the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service, which has its own fingerprint system.
“There’s a memorandum of understanding that’s going to be drafted, which will give terms and conditions of how that information would be accessed and shared,” Mr. Wong said, adding it won’t be as easy as police simply searching through immigration’s database whenever they would like to.
The other major initiative is the implementation of Cayman’s version of the automated passenger information system. The system is already in place in the US for outgoing flights. It allows information to be communicated with the airlines, customs and border control officials to let them know who is flying into their country prior to those flights arriving.
“There’s nothing better than knowing in advance who is departing and who is arriving, in order to be prepared for them,” Mr. Smith said. Eventually, it is hoped that the outgoing passenger check system at Owen Roberts International Airport will be revised to eliminate or at least lessen immigration officer’s interaction with travellers.
“We will eventually get to where persons don’t have to come to us,” he said.