A third of foreign workers who held Term Limit Exemption Permits have left the Cayman Islands rather than seek new work permits or apply for permanent residency.
Five hundred have left and only 54 have so far applied to stay on the island permanently.
The special permits were all due to expire in October last year, leaving nearly 1,500 workers in immigration limbo.
To deal with the issue and prevent a mass exodus of employees, the Progressives government relaxed the original conditions of the permits as part of an extensive package of immigration reforms.
TLEP holders, all of whom had reached the seven-year threshold which under previous rules would have required them to leave the island, were given the option of seeking new work permits under the terms of the Immigration Amendment Act, which pushes that “rollover” date back to nine years.
Those here longer than eight years were also given the chance to apply for permanent residency under new conditions outlined in the legislation.
Statistics released by government on Friday show that 274 TLEP holders have been granted new work permits. A further 576 have applied for permits, while only 54 have applied for permanent residency.
Some are still on the island as visitors while 547 have left.
A government spokeswoman said the vacant positions were open to Caymanians willing and qualified to do the work.
“Government is working with employers to ensure that Caymanians are hired for jobs vacated by those who held TLEPs through the National Workforce Development Agency,” she said.
Premier Alden McLaughlin said the relatively low number of applications for permanent residency vindicated government’s decision to make that option available to TLEP holders.
“We knew from the outset, and even stated, that not all of those people on these special permits would want to seek permanent residency and the numbers show that we were right,” he said.
He added that it would have been bad for the country for all TLEP holders to be forced to leave en masse when the original October deadline was reached.
“We would have had close to 1,500 people with dependents leaving the country at once; people not buying groceries, not paying rent, not buying gas. It just wasn’t in the best interest of the Cayman Islands,” he said.
Term Limit Exemption Permits were created in October 2011 by the former United Democratic Party government. The idea at the time was to help local businesses stave off a wholesale departure of thousands of non-Caymanian employees who had come to Cayman after Hurricane Ivan in September 2004.
Many of those individuals who remained on island were reaching their seven-year term limit by 2011-2012 and the term limit exemptions allowed them to stay up to two extra years between October 2011 and October 2013, if they were granted. All of the TLEP workers have been in Cayman for longer than seven years and most have been here longer than eight years.
That situation created a bit of a legal dilemma for the government. The previous term limit exemption legislation stated that those workers would not be eligible to apply for permanent resident status, even though they had stayed in the Cayman Islands for the requisite eight years.
Mr. McLaughlin’s government, as part of a package of immigration reforms, agreed to allow any of those individuals who have been in Cayman eight years and who hold a valid work permit to apply for permanent resident status, citing the potential for human rights-related lawsuits if they did not do so.