Successive Cayman Islands governors foresaw the overseas territory’s current immigration difficulties as far back as the late 1980s and reported the potential for “serious social problems” if various perceived disparities were not addressed.
The governors also warned of “prosperity largely based on dependent status” eroding if a move toward independence from Britain was proposed as a result of anti-foreigner sentiment.
The statements are recorded in two decades of annual dispatches sent from the territorial governors to the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office between 1987 and 2005. The dispatches cover part or all of the terms of six Cayman Islands governors.
One dispatch sent for the year 1989, early in the term of former Governor Alan J. Scott, noted that “tensions” had revived on the Royal Cayman Islands Police Force “between a few local officers and expatriates.” Mr. Scott saw the issues as a symptom of wider problems existing at the time.
“We are in for an uneasy year, perhaps a watershed in Cayman politics and outlook,” Governor Scott wrote, referring to the year 1990. “The continuing pace of development will increase. Overt xenophobia is likely to increase with attacks on British presence, due to the frustration that on their prosperity and [relative] competence an advanced constitution or even independence might indeed be built, against the reality that prosperity is largely based upon dependent status.”
The next year, Mr. Scott noted cries for independence among the elected members had largely subsided. “[The politicians] know in their hearts – and from their constituents – that independence is not for them if Cayman is to retain its high standard of living and its good reputation in the financial and tourist world.”
Three years later, in 1993, new Governor Michael Gore groused about “bad management” of the immigration system endangering budding economic prosperity.
“There are signs of an upturn in the construction industry and sales of property to foreign investors and retirees have recently shown an increase for the first time in three years,” Mr. Gore noted. “For this to continue, and indeed for Cayman to continue to enjoy the standard of living which the people have known for the past 10 years, it is important that the islanders do not succumb to the natural insularity which is found in all small island communities.
“In 1993, anti-foreigner sentiments were again heard and there was much criticism by the expatriate community of the immigration board which was making life difficult for those seeking work permits or permanent resident status. Much of the problem was caused by bad management of the Immigration Department which services the board, but there is no doubt that some members of the board were listening to complaints by disgruntled Caymanians who felt they were not benefitting as they thought they should from the wealth being generated, and were deliberately making life difficult for expatriates.”
Some interim steps to reorganize the department were taken to hopefully put “this problem behind us,” Governor Gore noted. “However, it will inevitably arise again sometime in the future, as it has from time to time in the past, whenever local people believe they are losing out to expatriates,” he said.
It was not long before Cayman’s next governor, John Owen, in 1995 noted that the growth among the expatriate worker population was outstripping the local Caymanian population. At the end of 1994, Mr. Owen noted that the islands’ total population was 31,900, of which 37 percent [11,800] were expatriates.
“This gives rise to periodic “expat bashing” by small pockets of xenophobic Caymanians,” Mr. Owen wrote. “There were several such episodes during 1995. 1996 will be no different. Caymanians generally dislike Jamaicans because they are thought to lower the tone of Cayman. Some Caymanians also dislike expatriates of any kind, but particularly Americans, Britons and Canadians since they are perceived to have the pick of all the top jobs and are ‘imported’ especially for that reason.
“There is a degree of truth in this, but this has to be tempered with the fact that many Caymanians neither have the required qualifications nor the experience. But this is changing quickly.”
In his next annual dispatch, Mr. Owen issued warnings of social ills that might arise from such an “imbalance.”
“The balance between Caymanians and expatriates will need careful monitoring,” he said. “If, in the long term, Caymanians are overtaken by expatriates this could change the nature of society and result in serious social problems.”
The next dispatch to reference immigration was Governor Peter Smith’s in 1998: “More than 50 percent of the workforce is now non-Caymanian. Until the government tackles the issue of granting either status or permanent residence to the foreigners who have made their permanent homes here, this distorted picture will remain.”
Governor Bruce Dinwiddy reported in 2002 that government was “at least” addressing the “growing imbalance” between Caymanians and expatriates. However, the method used to restore the “balance” has since become known as one of the more polarizing events ever to occur in local politics.
“Cabinet granted Caymanian status to 2,500 mostly long-term expatriates,” Mr. Dinwiddy wrote. “There are still nearly 200 residents with 20+ years standing without status. Most of these will get status early in 2004. Thereafter, the new immigration act offers a more predictable process, but those who qualify for permanent residence and British Overseas Territories Citizenship naturalization [after approximately 10 years] will still need to wait another five years before applying for status.”
Changes made to the Immigration Law in 2003 and which took effect in January 2004 established Cayman’s current “rollover policy” for non-Caymanian workers. They also created the three separate immigration-related boards – the Work Permit Board, the Business Staffing Plan Board and the Caymanian Status and Permanent Residency Board – which now govern all immigration-related decisions.