Lines are lengthening, applications are piling up, and tales of dysfunction are becoming all too common at the Cayman Islands Department of Immigration.

This time around, the subject is the growing backlog of work permit applications, and the dramatic increase in the time it is taking for those permits to be processed, approved or denied.

As the Cayman Compass reported on Tuesday, immigration officials say they received 18,847 work permit applications between January and July this year – roughly the same number they processed during all of 2016. As any highway engineer will tell you, increased traffic in the absence of increased capacity leads to gridlock.

Currently, from the time a work permit is submitted, it can take as long as 10 weeks for it to be considered, approved or denied. For an employer, or an applicant, that can be an eternity.

Officials say the current backlog of work permit applications tops 1,700, with more applications being filed every day. The figures include new applications, renewals, extensions, temporary permits, special economic zone permits and amendments to business staffing plans.

For the record, the department is claiming it is understaffed – and it very well may be.

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the irony of the Immigration Department and its work permit apparatus claiming it needs to fill 11 positions to handle its workload. Welcome to the club. While their desks remain empty, the private sector’s desks are also vacant as companies wait on permit approvals.

An oft-repeated narrative is that Cayman is home to more than 1,000 Caymanian adults who are ready, willing and able to work but have been crowded out of job opportunities by the country’s growing expatriate population who have been fortunate enough to have had their work permits approved.

If that were true (and it is not), surely officials in the Immigration Department (which is staffed 100 percent by Caymanians) could fill their vacancies by simply asking the National Workforce Development Agency to send over a dozen or so of their best candidates.

While we are certain immigration staffers are feeling pressure under growing mountains of paperwork, the best solution may not be a simple increase in headcount. When confronted with a problem, the first instinct of many organizations, especially governments, is to “staff up.”

A better approach might be to rethink the entire work permit process, challenging every assumption of what is required and why it is required. Can the process be simplified to the point of being almost automatic?

We accept that processing immigration applications may not be the most glamorous occupation in the world. It no doubt requires an inordinate amount of concentration, as well as rote and repetitious tedium.

Most jobs, frankly, are like that. In the newspaper business, for example, each paragraph in this daily newspaper is copy-edited closely for grammar, spelling and clarity of meaning. Perhaps the only thing more mundane than requesting supporting documentation for work permits at Immigration is correcting dangling participles at the Compass. We feel your pain.

Such tasks as processing paperwork efficiently, answering phones on the first ring, and updating informational web pages are necessary for businesses to meet the expectations of their clients and essential for governments to assist their citizens.

True, the work may not be glamorous, but that does not make it less essential, even vital, to the smooth functioning of our economy and the social well-being of our country.

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