The House of Representatives met on Friday at the National Assembly. While there was a demonstration going on outside, new amendments to strengthen the regulatory body at the Ministry of Immigration were revealed. In the absence of the Former Junior Minister, Elvin Penner, whose alleged misdeeds have arguably sparked the need for stronger parameters, Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, outlined the proposed changes. The first is in relation to the Immigration Act – which constitutes matters of permanent residency and the issuance of visas.
“With respect to this first Bill here,(Immigration Bill)the amendments include the addition of the new section covering the issuance of the Residency Permits, most importantly, it provides for a Visa Vetting Committee, which will consist of the CEO in the Ministry responsible for Immigration, the CEO responsible for the Ministry in the Human Development, the CEO responsible in the Ministry in the National and the Director of Immigration and Nationality Services. So, this committee then is charged with the responsibility of reviewing and approving the Application of Visas and the committee will look at the applications from nationals of any country…or very country in respect of which a Visa is required under the Act. The Director of Immigration and Nationality or any other councilor officer shall not grant a visa to any person without the approval of this committee. Naturally, the Ministry believes that these amendments will greatly strengthen the process of acceptance of desirable persons for visas to enter Belize”.
The subsequent bill involves adjustments to the Belizean Nationality Act. This amendment, among other things, intends to implement stiffer penalties for violation of the Act.
Hon. Dean Oliver Barrow:
“What we’re trying to do here, Mr. Speaker, is to provide for stream linings and enhancing the requirements to obtain Belizean Nationality by registration, including the provision that henceforth, all applicants for Nationality must be in a possession of a Permanent Residency Permit declaring the status as a permanent resident for five years, of continuously residency, immediately prior to applying to be registered as a citizen of Belize. The amendments provide for increased penalties for violations of the provisions of the Act. These increased penalties would include a fine of $50,000 and a mandatory term of imprisonment from five to fifteen years…I believe it’s the range that was set out in the Bill”.
The Prime Minister then went on to speak at length to one particular clause in the bill, regarding a Nationality Scrutinizing Committee. The initial recommendation was that the Committee would consist of CEOs from the Ministry of Immigration, Human Development, National Security, a representative from the Solicitor General’s Department and the Director of Immigration and Nationality. The board was also to include one member each from the social bodies within the Senate – that is – the Council of Churches, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the NTUCB. Said committee will be tasked with the responsibility of vetting all application for citizenship by registration and advising the Minister on qualification and suitability of the applicants. However, according to the PM, some of the social partners requested that the Committee be afforded the authority to issue nationality certificates. He affirmed on Friday that under the Constitution, such a request cannot be granted. This disparity caused the Government to further revise the amendment and perhaps curbing the social partner’s participation even more.
Hon. Dean Oliver Barrow:
“Mr. Speaker, I’m not going to quarrel with that social partner. I merely point out that that cannot be countenance. The role of the social partners in a situation like this is to assist to the vetting process, and ultimately if the Minister decides to proceed with the grant of Nationality in circumstances where the Committee has said, ‘we don’t think things are order; then, the social partners act as whistleblowers; they alert the public to the fact that something is aerie, but they cannot take over the role of the Minister. Under our system of governance…under our constitution, some functions are reserved for ministers. That’s the democracy that we operate. We had to make a last minute change:
Our previous draft had gone on to say, “the committee shall consist of the following: One representative appointed by the Belize Council of Churches. Well, we’ve changed that. So, what we’ve put is this: The committee shall consist of the following: One representative from the religious community to be appointed by the Minister after consultation with both (because we were forgetting the Evangelical Association, and we shouldn’t do that) the Belize Council of Churches and the Belize Evangelical Association. Similarly, B) one representative of the business community to be appointed by the Minister after consultation with the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry. So, Chamber of Commerce, you will not appoint; the Minister will appoint, it must be a business person, we will consult with you. Similarly, C) one representative of employees to be appointed (it should be employee organizations) to be appointed by the Minster after consultation with the National Trade Union Congress of Belize. So, again, you did not seize our earlier offer to have you be the Gaugin. Make the appointment. So, the minister will appoint, we will consult with you, we’re happy to take on board any recommendation that you make seriously, but we retain the final point of making the last decision”.
The final bill read on Friday, as it relates to the governance at the Ministry of Immigration, seeks to amend the Passport Act. Here’s how the PM broke down those changes.
Hon. Dean Oliver Barrow:
“The amendments, Mr. Speaker, are intended to widen the net to capture all persons who facilitate the issuance of a passport, 1) without lawful authority, or 2) knowing that the issue of the passport is contrary to the provisions of this Act, or 3) engages in conduct, in the exercise of a duty or authority under this Act for the purpose of obtaining a benefit for himself or another person. Additionally, the penalties for offences against the Act are strengthened by increasing from $500 (the fine which is currently provided); increasing from $500 fine and up to one year term of imprisonment and we are increasing that to a fine of $50,000 and imprisonment for a term of between five and fifteen years. Mr. Speaker, let me just make clear that the introductions of the amendments to the legislation are being done against the backdrop of administrative changes that have already been made by the Minister, by the ministry, by the department in an effort to provide improvements.”
Prime Minister Barrow further outlined a shift of systems and transfers taking placing with the Department; changes to procure a fresh start.
Hon. Dean Oliver Barrow:
“The Minister has, in conjunction with the Public Service Ministry, tried to restructure and organize the Department. Some people have been moved out; new people have been moved in. New sections within the Department have been created. There will now be five sections: Customer Care, Investigation Processing, a processing section that will deal with all applications (passport, permanent residency, Nationality, Visas, Quality Assurance and Delivery Section and an Enforcement Section. The reorganization is to try and separate processes to ensure greater accountability and a better system of checks and balances. This change in the structure ensures that the person accepting applications for services from the public is not involved in the investigation in processing or the quality assurance and delivery back of those applications. Now, the investigation section will be responsible for vetting the applications conducting the interviews and so on. The enforcement section will also be responsible for border patrols, check points, prosecutions and inter-agency cooperation. Mr. Speaker, I regret that the Ministry is trying to conduct a proper inventory and so as to, as it…were to start fresh. The Nationality section, dealing with applications of Permanent Residency, Nationality will in fact be closed to the public for a period while they tried to get everything in order”.
The closure is expected to last some 2 weeks to a month.
After a chorus of public disapproval on what seemed like hesitancy on the part of law enforcement to carry out an external investigation at the Ministry, the PM provided an update on two individual investigations taking place.
Hon. Dean Oliver Barrow- Prime Minister
“Finally, Mr. Speaker, we need to make clear that the Police Department continues the investigations, I believe it’s ACP Blackett who’s in charge and they have interviewed several persons in the various sections of the Department. They have received files turned over by one Mr. Arthur Saldivar, not the 100 or 150 or whatever he said. I think is five-five and we are working with these. The FIU is of course proceeding with its investigation, and the Auditor General, on October 15th, gave the Department of its intention to carry out a comprehensive investigation and audit into the issuance of Nationality Certificates, passports and visas from the period from 2011-to September 2013. They have requested from the Department all the databases from Nationality and passport, the policies and procedures, the database for the issuance of visas, the policies and procedures for the issuance of visas, and the work started on Monday, October 28th, 2013.”