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Senate Hearings Resume With Immigration Director
posted (September 6, 2017)
So, at the top of the news, we've shown you the political hurly burly which happened Orange Walk over the latest Vega land scandal. But, for 8 months now, the ruling UDP had been under sustained attacks from the weekly revelations in the Senate Inquiry into the Immigration Department.

The Senate Select Committee took a month-long break, and resumed today to take testimony from the current Immigration Director Diana Locke.

After all the abuses at the Department have been laid bare for the country to see how the corruption was able to spread in Immigration, the Senate Committee wanted to hear what changes were made since 2014 to improve oversight. They had a 2 and a half hour conversation with Director Locke, and here's what she had to say about the recent fixes:

Diana Locke - Director of Immigration
"There has been the establishment of a visa vetting committee. There are revised guidelines for the application for a visa and there is a visa desk which has been set up where all applications go into and it has a process that it is followed before it is presented to the visa vetting committee. The committee is made up and chaired by the CEO of Immigration, the CEO for Home Affairs, the CEO for Human development and myself. The committee actually physically reviews each application for visa that is presented by whichever national and every national who is required to have a visa to enter Belize. So they physically look at the application the recommendations made by the investigation unit, documentation presented, whatever other information is submitted, they look at that."

Aldo Salazar - Chair, Senate Select Committee
"What are you looking for primarily?"

Diana Locke- Director of Immigration
"The genuineness of the application, the authenticity of the documents that are presented in support of that application and the comments from the investigating unit to indicate whether or not the information that has been presented has checked out. It has provided an additional layer of not one person making that final decision but a body of persons who would vet that application; it's not left to the discretion of one individual."

Aldo Salazar - Chair, Senate Select Committee
"Have you found irregularities?"

Diana Locke- Director of Immigration
"Yes, we have on some of the applications."

Aldo Salazar - Chair, Senate Select Committee
"Significant?"

Diana Locke- Director of Immigration
"In my view, yes."

Aldo Salazar - Chair, Senate Select Committee
"Not any one case having significant irregularities but a significant level of irregularities over several cases or applications."

Diana Locke- Director of Immigration
"Not significant but enough to be concerned."

Hon. Eamon Courtenay, PUP Senator
"The issues that arose repeatedly is the question of recommendations for visas signed by ministers and signed by other operatives."

Diana Locke
"I have not seen that."

Hon. Eamon Courtenay, PUP Senator
"So that that business has dried up?"

Diana Locke
"I guess so because I have not experienced that. Under the permanent residence, there was also an amendment to the same chapter 156 in relation to permanent residence which specifies guidelines, requirements to apply for permanent residence. Before, I think there was no real legal document that spoke to what those things were and now they are in that amendment. There is also enhanced application guidelines for permanent residence, the requirement to provide documentation from social security depending on if you are a person who is applying with a temporary employment permit, had a job here in Belize, you'd provide certain documentation from the income tax department, social security, your job letter, those sorts of things. If you are a retiree and you are applying through extensions which you have obtained over a period of over a year you would provide information showing where is your source of income, be it a US pension document or a foreign document you also have to demonstrate to us how those funds get to Belize whether or not you are accessing those fund via wire transfer or whether or not those funds are being accessed through a draw down on your credit card or an ATM machine so we ask for proof of those things so we make sure you are not working in Belize. There is also the nationality scrutinizing committee which has been put in place, again, in 2014. That committee is made up of the social partners and government representatives and that committee meets on a monthly basis, and sometimes bi-monthly, to review applications for nationality once they have been gazetted. It's shared by the CEO of Home Affairs, it has on it the CEO for Immigration, from Human Development, a representative from the Attorney General's office, there is a representative from the unions, from the churches and from the business sector and myself."

But, no matter how hard the heads of department work to keep the department honest, there is only so much they can do, and today, the Senators questioned how effective the changes have been:

Hon. Mark Lizarraga- Senator for Business Sector
"Is it now that only family members can apply?"

Diana Locke- Immigration Director
"No, we have family members that come in, we have agents too."

Hon. Mark Lizarraga
"You still have agents."

Diana Locke
"Yes, unfortunately, we still have agents. Recently one of them declared herself to me."

Hon. Mark Lizarraga
"But the law, what does the law say?"

Diana Locke
"The law does not say…well, any person, the policy says any person can apply for a visa. But it made no mention that agents are not eligible to apply. We don't like them, I don't like them, but they do make applications."

Hon. Eamon Courtenay, PUP Senator
"So I have seen the list like Senator Lizarraga in the Gazette. So what is a member of the public supposed to do when they see the name of someone they do not know has applied for nationality."

Diana Locke
"I guess if you have a concern about that individual..."

Hon. Eamon Courtenay, PUP Senator
"How would you know? Wong Hong Kim, resident 10 Oreol Avenue Belmopan. How does that help anybody in the public?"

Diana Locke
"Good question."

Hon. Eamon Courtenay, PUP Senator
"Again, if Wong Hong Kim's name was on that list, it would have made absolutely no difference, the same thing would have happened."

Hon. Mark Lizarraga
"The banks, for example, Chair, use a signature card. I mean if you want to have the privilege of signing somebody's passport you have to sign and the department has to have a specimen copy of your signature so that they can compare it to. So to me, these are easy fixes and yet there are things that have contributed tremendously to the corruption in the department- the lack of an ability to verify the authenticity of those people that recommend. I mean how do you know that Elena Smith is Elena Smith. How do you know that Senator Lizarraga is Senator Lizarraga? How do you know it's my signature and I'm recommending somebody? You may know my name but you don't know if that's my signature? Somebody could be signing for me."

Diana Locke
"Within the passport system the system was designed for one recommender only and that is the justice of the peace. So the application that comes with a category B recommender that is stored with the application but it does not form a part of the record in the system, in the passport system, because there is no field for that to be entered. So we enter the name of the justice of the peace who is recommended A, but we are not able to enter on the passport system the name of the recommender B. When the system was designed, there was no recommender B."

Hon. Eamon Courtenay, PUP Senator
"What is the point if somebody comes to you with a birth certificate from vital stats saying that he or she was born in Belize. What difference does it make to you if a justice of the peace says that I have known this person for five years?"

Diana Locke
"In that case, you have to present another form of ID."

Hon. Eamon Courtenay, PUP Senator
"If you present two forms of ID, satisfactory to you, what difference does it make, whether it is an attorney, a member of the House, a justice of the peace, a teacher says to you that I have known this applicant for five years? When the person has presented legal documentation certifying and establishing his or her nationality, why do you need this? Have you ever called a justice of the peace and said you say you know Elena Smith for five years, dah true?"

Diana Locke
"I haven't and I haven't."

Hon. Eamon Courtenay, PUP Senator
"What's the point? We are doing these things."

Diana Locke
"And this is what we are saying. We are looking at all of these things because it may not strengthen the process to keep them but we have to find a way. If you are able to bring in your social security card, you've been vetted by them, you are able to bring your voters ID because you've gone there and somebody has done a secondary check on you, not everybody is required to have a passport but by law everybody is required to have a social security card. Unfortunately, minors don't carry a picture on their card so that makes it a challenge for us."

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