EDITORIAL – A fresh start possible for Immigration

Two immigration stories on the front page of Monday’s Compass are a reminder that sometimes the end is an opportunity for a new beginning.

First, the number of people who are appealing denials of their permanent residence applications has reached at least five and is climbing. Second, after being on paid leave for nearly three years, former Chief Immigration Officer Linda Evans has reached an early retirement agreement with the Cayman Islands government, freeing up the top spot in the Department of Immigration.

Both of these developments offer opportunities to forestall yet another cycle of immigration dysfunction.

Since Aug. 1, when immigration officials began hearing PR applications in earnest, they have issued 277 decisions, including 95 denials.

In line with most administrative law matters in government, denied applicants can bring challenges to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal, and then if they are denied again, to the Cayman Islands Grand Court in the form of a judicial review.

As the immigration department continues to chip away at the PR backlog (which over a period of more than three years was allowed to grow to more than 1,000 applications), officials should plan now for the corresponding future increase in the number of appeals. Allocating resources in advance may help to meet increased demand in a timely and efficient manner and avoid yet another immigration bottleneck at the appeals level. As a further step, Cayman’s court system should be prepared to hear the inevitable challenges to appeals tribunal decisions.

Typically, when seeking to assign accountability for a bureaucratic morass that has gradually accumulated over a period of years, we first look to the top of the administrative ladder. During the time the PR logjam developed, since the former Progressives government passed a new Immigration Law in fall 2013, the titular head of the immigration department was Ms. Evans.

However, it is not clear how much of the blame should be allocated to Ms. Evans, who has been on paid administrative leave since December 2014.

Ms. Evans’s absence was only one of many leadership vacancies in the immigration department, which at one point this year had eight staffers on required leave at full pay. Additionally, though not on leave, Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Garfield “Gary” Wong continues to battle charges of careless driving, leaving the scene of an accident and driving under the influence of alcohol, stemming from an incident along Shamrock Road on Dec. 28, 2013.

Now that Ms. Evans has officially retired from her position, the search must begin immediately for the best possible Chief Executive for this critically important, and critically beleaguered, governmental entity.

The lack of leadership has likely contributed to the immigration department’s well-documented difficulties, dysfunction and paralysis. In recent years, there has simply been no one with the clear authority to bring about systemic change and issue long-term strategic directives.

As we see with other key government vacancies (and particularly leadership posts in “100 percent Caymanian” departments such as immigration and the fire service), there will no doubt be intense political and populist pressure to appoint “the best Caymanian for the job.”

Government officials should resist that influence and instead search for “the best person for the job,” period.

The role of immigration in Cayman’s government and Cayman as a country is far too vital to dismiss summarily any candidate based solely on nationality or immigration status.

If the best candidate for the job happens to be Caymanian, great. If the best candidate happens not to be Caymanian, also great.

The new immigration chief must have the expertise, talent and drive to drag the immigration department out of its current difficulties and shape it into the efficient and effective government service that Cayman expects and deserves.

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