Two Newlands independent political candidates alleged Friday that the Progressives government’s mismanagement led to delays in hearing hundreds of permanent residence applications, delays the candidates said were “playing with people’s lives.”
Even Progressives’ Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton acknowledged during a Chamber of Commerce candidates forum that the delay of between 900 and 1,000 residency applications filed since October 2013 was “not fair to stay as it is.”
“There are lots of people whose lives, they feel, are in limbo. They feel they are unable to move on,” Mr. Panton said. “It has really been too long in that situation.”
Mr. Panton’s opponent, former Progressives backbench MLA and now independent candidate Alva Suckoo, said, “It’s a classic case of mismanagement.
“The situation didn’t come up yesterday. The urgency [of it] was not addressed,” Mr. Suckoo said. “People’s lives were put on hold. People didn’t know what was going to happen. Now we’re seeing the lawsuits piling up.”
Independent Newlands candidate Raul Gonzalez, Jr. said it was difficult for him to even comment on what government should do to address the permanent residence delays because he had not seen the taxpayer-funded, $312,000 consultant’s report, known as the Ritch Report, that was commissioned to guide government on the matter.
“They didn’t act on [the report],” Mr. Gonzalez said. “It just goes to show, they spend money on these reports, as usual, and put them on the shelves to collect dust. It’s peoples’ lives they are playing with.
“These are people who contribute to our society … they’re just in limbo. It’s unacceptable.”
Immigration-related matters, including voters’ concerns about permanent residence, work permit applications and local employment issues, dominated the Chamber candidates forum Friday night at Savannah Primary School. Immigration matters were the subject of five of the roughly dozen question the three candidates fielded.
It was an audience question that sought to determine the three candidates’ position on the current backlog of permanent residence applications that drew the most controversial responses.
Minister Panton insisted the Progressives Cabinet had taken a number of actions to ensure the legal difficulties with the permanent residence applications could be addressed, and he believes some applicants could have their cases heard shortly.
“Overall, for us to continue to succeed as a country … we have to have skilled people who are part of our country,” Mr. Panton said, pointing to the example of teachers who educate Caymanian children. “Why shouldn’t they be able to become permanent residents and eventually Caymanians as well?”
Mr. Suckoo said he thought the current permanent residence points system used to determine which applicants would be successful in bids to remain in Cayman for the rest of their lives was too heavily weighted toward wealthier applicants. He said the points system should focus more on societal integration.
“We need to focus on the quality of individuals,” he said, “rather than just looking at what property they own and how many dogs they’ve walked.”
The three candidates were asked whether they would support the formation of a quota for both permanent residence and Caymanian status applications each year, meaning a maximum number of approvals for each of those immigration categories. The Cayman Islands government proposed such a system in 2002-2003, but it was never implemented.
Mr. Gonzalez said he would support such a system, Mr. Panton said he did not. Mr. Suckoo said he might support quotas set for certain jobs or industries, but not a blanket cap on residency or status approvals for all non-Caymanians.
“We don’t want to be overburdened,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “Our infrastructure can only handle so much and we need to take time to grow.”
Mr. Panton said while he might change his mind in five or 10 years, right now the territory still needs the skills of foreign workers to help it grow. “I’m not one of those that think diversity … is necessarily a bad thing,” he said.
Mr. Suckoo said Cayman has created a quandary with its current immigration policies. The government is encouraging entrepreneurship among its people, which it needs growth to support. However, he said the country does not have the proper infrastructure to support that growth at the moment.
“I don’t really think we need to have an over-arching quota on permanent residence,” he said. “But I think we need to be a bit smarter on how we’re granting it.”
No applications for permanent residence have been approved in Cayman under the current version of the Immigration Law since it took effect on Oct. 26, 2013. About a dozen or so residence applications were denied, but all of those denials occurred during 2013-2014.
The new Immigration Law regulations that took effect in October 2013 made it more difficult for applicants to obtain permanent residence, increasing the number of points they must receive from 100 to 110. However, court challenges to the permanent residence application process since 2004 have led the judiciary to issue rulings questioning the fairness and even the legality of certain decisions made by immigration-related boards in Cayman.