More than 4,000 travelers have sailed through Owen Roberts International Airport within the past two months without facing one last check by a Cayman Islands immigration officer.
Yet proposals from the previous United Democratic Party government to eliminate outbound immigration passenger checks have not come to fruition, largely because of delays in compliance with the initiative from certain airlines.
“There are a number of airlines – one in particular – that have not gotten to that advanced state to allow for all of the security requirements to take place, but not have that physical check of the individual going to that immigration officer … and allowing them to exit the jurisdiction,” said Ministry of Home Affairs Chief Officer Eric Bush.
His comments were made during a Friday evening meeting of the Legislative Assembly’s Finance Committee, where former Premier McKeeva Bush inquired about the status of outbound immigration changes since his government left office.
“It was recognized that if we eliminated outgoing immigration, that there had to be other checks that the police … would have,” McKeeva Bush said. “But it is a year now, or more.”
Eric Bush assured the former premier that the initiative was continuing: “The project will remove the physical checks of immigration on outbound [passengers] at the airport. A pilot has started from the 15th of August and is in play with certain airlines.”
The elimination of outbound immigration checks also sought to free up immigration officers to handle inbound passengers more swiftly. The airport has slow passenger processing times, particularly during busy periods when several planes arrive within the same hour.
Eric Bush said the pilot program to eliminate the outgoing checks had been an absolute success where it was applied. “We have passed successfully over 4,000 passengers who have not seen physical immigration controls [since Aug. 15],” he said. “It’s not only the Immigration Department and it’s not only a budget issue, it’s reliant on a company [airline] to be compliant.
“When you’re exiting the destination, that’s your last experience. It’s totally accepted by the ministry of why it needs to be done. It’s just striking that balance of the security needs versus the customer service needs, and we’re trying to do that.”
For instance, Eric Bush said an issue had arisen with an airline where at least one hour prior to departure was needed to ensure proper security checks on outbound passengers. If someone checked in within an hour of the flight, the Immigration Department did not have enough time perform those checks.
“So once these business processes are accepted by all airlines, then we can move forward,” Eric Bush said.
During an interview last year, Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Bruce Smith discussed a similar scenario in which a criminal suspect might not be identified by the Advanced Passenger Information System until the plane is already in the air. If that person had a court hold for a crime in Cayman, but immigration officers don’t know about it until after departure, it could create an embarrassing situation for the department, he said.
“How do we identify that [a person] who should not travel today should not travel. How do we identify you are on a watch list?” he said. “If officers are there and you present yourself, then we have you in front of us. Whatever system we have, risk mitigation has to be a part of it.
“The airline needs to say ‘what is the shut-off point?’ Without those kinds of arrangements … we run the risk of persons departing that shouldn’t depart.”
Mr. Smith said he is sometimes asked why Cayman can’t just let suspected criminals leave and put the problems in another jurisdiction’s court.
“The criminal justice system doesn’t work that way … we have a responsibility to ensure that court orders are complied with and we enforce that,” he said.