Lengthy delays in processing appeals of work permit, permanent residence and Caymanian status applications over the last several years were blamed on short staffing and confused or non-existent operating policies, according to an Internal Audit Unit report made public following a Cayman Compass open records request.
The delays in processing submissions to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal – typically where a person’s immigration-related application has been denied and the person challenges that denial – were noted in a number of points in the appeals procedure.
One section of the internal audit review noted that there were delays of between 16 and 130 days in the tribunal sending the required notices of appeal to the Immigration Department. In a few appeals cases dating from 2012-2013, the notices of appeal were only sent on May 1, 2014, when auditors asked what happened to them.
Scheduling hearings before the appeals tribunal were also significantly delayed in sample cases examined by government auditors. One work permit denial for which a letter of appeal was received in February 2013 didn’t get heard until April 2014 – 405 days later. Other delays between the time a letter of appeal was received and when the appeal hearing proceeded ranged between just 18 days and 170 days.
“There was no documentation on file to justify the vast variances and the reason for the delayed hearings,” the audit report stated.
In 23 of the 43 appeals reviewed, the appeals had been decided on by the tribunal but that message was not communicated until a “notice of decision” was finalized. This often happened between two and three months after the decision was made, which auditors said was blamed on members of the appeals tribunal not providing their comments on decisions in a timely manner.
General documentation concerning when appeals were received, what was said during the meetings and what happened as a result of the meetings was also poor, auditors noted.
The Internal Audit Unit found that the appeals tribunal meetings were recorded in minutes, but there was no evidence the minutes of the meetings had been confirmed by tribunal members for accuracy prior to the tribunal chairman’s approval.
Not following the law
Internal auditors flagged up several instances where the Immigration Law as it applies to the appeals process was not followed.
For instance, the Immigration Department did not send decisions regarding appeals to the applicants themselves, as required, and depended on the three-person tribunal secretariat staff to do so, which resulted in some delays in communicating those decisions to applicants.
On some occasions, a tribunal deputy chairperson used their own personal secretary to take notes and record minutes of meetings, not the individual appointed to serve by the governor. “This … exposes the tribunal to confidentiality risks,” auditors noted.
Since October 2012, auditors said no secretary working for the appeals tribunal attended the meetings. One of the board’s members was assigned to take the minutes of the meetings in the secretary’s absence.
Auditors also observed during tribunal meetings they attended in April 2014 that no laptop computers were provided to board members hearing various appeals, including those involving work permits, permanent residence and Caymanian status applications.
Board members asked that printed copies of appeal case records be given to them, rather than retrieving them on the immigration database via computer. Tribunal chairs and deputy chairs were granted access to the immigration database, but didn’t know how to use it, auditors found.
“The secretaries stated that they handle too much paper every day because of this resource issue,” the auditors stated. “Our audit has assessed that all of the above deficiencies may be due to the lack of personnel designated to perform independent reviews and monitoring of compliance with the provisions of the law and best practices.
“We also noted inefficient work practices which are compounded by inadequate staff resources to handle the work load.”
Auditors also noted paper records kept inside unlocked filing cabinets or on top of office tables were observed during inspections of the Immigration Appeals Tribunals offices. Anyone not affiliated with the appeals tribunal could easily access those files, auditors found.
Cayman Islands Cabinet Secretary Samuel Rose – whose office is responsible for the Immigration Appeals Tribunal secretariat – requested the audit be undertaken in 2014.
The Cabinet office also released the report to the press on Tuesday, at the same time as it was released to the Compass newspaper, which was the original open records requester. Mr. Rose said the Immigration Appeals Tribunal has faced a huge backlog of appeals – which once peaked at nearly 4,000 – and has managed to whittle that down to fewer than 200 as of last month.
“Many of [the Internal Audit Unit’s] initial findings have already been amended over time with the aim of improving efficiency,” a statement from the Cabinet office read. “Among the most noteworthy improvements has been a reduction in the time that it takes to notify appellants, who now receive decision letters within 48 hours of minutes being approved.”
Mr. Rose said his office fully supported the recommendations of the Internal Audit Unit and is committed to implementing all recommendations.