A woman who pleaded guilty last year to committing fraud against the government began giving evidence on Friday in the trial of five immigration officers and two civilians.
The defendants have pleaded not guilty to conspiring with each other and/or others to commit fraud on the government by arranging for the payment of rewards to public officers as consideration for providing assistance to candidates to pass an English language test.
Mariel Maleno Suriel admitted being involved in four instances in which a Spanish-speaking woman passed the test, allegedly with the help of one of the civilian defendants. She expressed her opinion that the women did not speak English – not enough to establish a conversation.
Work permit applicants are required to pass a test that includes speaking, reading and writing English if they come from a country in which English is not the primary language.
Ms. Suriel, who gave her evidence through an interpreter, said she had come to Cayman in 2006. She said she met the civilian defendant through another person and asked him if he could help someone she knew with the test.
Her evidence was that he said yes; he gave her his number and said whenever she was ready, she should send him a WhatsApp message or give him a call. He said each person had to pay US$800 or CI$600, but before they arrived, she had to send him the full name of the person. He said he could help such people because he had a contact in immigration.
Ms. Suriel said she went to Dominican Republic and spoke to two women and asked them for photos. Then she came back and showed them to the owner of a bar. The owner said yes, the women were pretty and she would get them a work permit. The permit was approved and Ms. Suriel said she then spoke to the civilian defendant who agreed to help.
Ms. Suriel told the jury that the two women arrived in January 2016. The following day they took the test. The civilian defendant arrived in a black Explorer. When the two women got into the vehicle, they had to give him the money. They left with him and came back about an hour later and both had passed the test, Ms. Suriel said.
She also spoke about another woman she said she had asked the defendant for help with. When this woman came back from taking the test, she was crying. She asked the civilian defendant what had happened. He said the person who was supposed to give the test did not. It was a different person who gave her the test and she did not pass. He gave the woman back her money and she was supposed to leave the island.
Ms. Suriel said she did not do anything further, but the civilian spoke to someone at immigration and the woman took the test again and passed it.
She was still giving evidence when court adjourned on Friday.
The jury has already heard from several senior immigration officers.
Officer Joey Scott said it was quite common for an applicant to be given a chance to re-sit the test, but permission could be given only by someone of the rank of deputy chief officer or above.
Officer Nicola Solomon said one of the five officers on trial was not senior enough to administer the English language test. Of the four who were senior enough, one was not scheduled to work at the airport at the time of the alleged offenses but worked at Immigration Headquarters.
Ms. Solomon explained how the test should be conducted. An information sheet about each test provided room for the names of the officer who administered the test, the officer who witnessed the test and the officer who put the results in the computer system, but all three roles could be done by one person. She said they rarely had three officers involved in a test “because we just didn’t have the personnel.”
Questioned by defense attorneys, she agreed that it was not uncommon for several people to be tested in the same room. This was not ideal, but the officers had to make do with the facilities they had. The person in charge of the shift decided which officer was going to test the candidate.
If she became aware of an officer charging money for something, she said she would have to report it. One of the accused officers had complained about the amount of work involved in re-testing and had made a suggestion about staggering the times applicants were told to come back; that suggestion was accepted, Ms. Solomon said.
Senior officer Lindsay Brown said some times were busier than others. Officers might be asked to stay and assist with tests or they might volunteer. They would receive overtime pay.
She was asked to look at test papers for people she had tested and who had failed. She said that, where no answers were written down, she interpreted it was because the person could not read and therefore could not answer the questions.
She said the officer giving the test could repeat a question. If a candidate needed one more mark to pass, the officer would probably ask a question that the person had not answered previously: “We were told we could use our judgment.”
Ms. Brown said the testing environment was busy, not peaceful. Testing might take place at an officer’s desk while other work was going on around it. There were times when it was noisy and she had heard that sometimes re-tests were allowed because of noise and laughter.
For legal reasons, the Compass is not naming the defendants in this case.