Minister Bev a No-Show

Swift Hall in Belize City was overflowing on Monday night in the mad rush by immigrants to acquire Belizean nationality.  The Minister of State for Immigration Beverly Williams was not present, but high ranking members of the Immigration Department turned up to meet the hundreds of immigrants. It all started last week when crowds converged at the political office of Lake I standard bearer Dianne Finnegan where their documents were being checked and readied as part of the nationality process ahead of the general elections. Here is a report with News Five’s Duane Moody.

Duane Moody, Reporting

Hundreds of immigrants from across the country converged at the Swift Hall on Vernon Street in Belize City on the evening of January thirteenth for a planned meeting with Minister of State for Immigration, Beverly Williams. But the minister was a no-show, and instead was represented by a number of immigration officials, including C.E.O. Edmond Zuniga and Director Debra Baptist.  The meeting was organized by U.D.P. standard bearer for the Lake Independence Division, Dianne Finnegan, who last week was openly assisting immigrants from Lake I constituency and other areas. Posing as translator for the night, Finnegan opened the meeting with a disclaimer, maintaining that it is not political in nature.

Dianne Finnegan, U.D.P. Standard Bearer, Lake I [Translated]

“This has nothing to do with politics; this has to do with your life, your status here in Belize. Nothing else. Whatever questions you have that pertains to you or doubts, this is the opportunity to ask your questions. And please raise your hand so that everyone can hear you and the immigration representatives can answer.”

Many of the immigrants have been living in Belize for over a decade but their status has not been regularized which would require legal entry into the country.

Debra Baptist, Immigration Director

“You would have had to enter the country of Belize legally, bearing your passports, clearly identifying yourself as nationals from whence you came. For Central Americans, and I know that this is primarily the audience that is here tonight, you would have been able to enter the country of Belize via one of our ports of entry, using your national passports and you would have been able to enter for at least thirty days. Subsequent to those thirty days, you would then be able to apply for a visa, which would be applicable for some of you people here since you would have wanted to extend your stay and become a part of the Belizean society.”

Also present was the new Director of the Nationality and Passport Department, Mario Arzu, who along with Director Baptist explained what needs to be done to legalize the immigrants’ status in Belize.

Mario Arzu, Director of Nationality/Passport Department

“The changes both legislative as well as procedural changes that would have affected several applicants that they for some reason or the other may have applied over a long period of time or are seeking to do applications under that same old law that existed prior to the amendments that were made in 2014. Very important to understand that some major changes were made that would have affected several applicants or individuals who would attempt to apply under those existing legislation prior to 2014. Prior to 2014, you could have applied for citizenship just by living in Belize for five years. One of the changes, because there are several, is that you can only apply for citizenship now, under that particular section, once you have resided in Belize as a permanent resident for five years after the date of issue of your permanent residence. In addition to that, there are also certain requirements that you must meet which indeed are the general requirements when you make any submission. But for clarity, you must also understand that internally, we do processing in batches, which means that every individual, depending on the time that you applied must wait for your turn beucase the selective processing no longer exists.”

The changes to the legislation were made in the wake of an immigration scandal. A Nationality Scrutinizing Committee, which include representatives from the public and private sector, have the responsibility to go through each application, which Arzu says must meet all legal and procedural requirements before it is recommended to the minister who signs off on the document.

But one of the longstanding issues is the verification of documents for the various applications made to the Immigration Department. News Five has been reliably informed that a number of Justices of Peace were asked and signed off on the hundreds of documents—many without being able to verify the authenticity of the documents presented by the immigrants. While making reference to the fact that immigrants can submit applications at the Immigration offices across the country, Baptist spoke in reference to the requirements for visa applicants; those applications then are sent to the headquarters for the Visa Vetting Committee to look over.

Debra Baptist

“We do have a visa application form that needs to be completed and it has accompanying requirements for you to qualify for a visa. So you would need to present your passport—and you would need to make a copy of that passport.  You would need to present a picture and you will also need to provide some proof of financial stability, which means that you would either have somebody who would vouch for you if you intend to stay in the  interim until you have acquired a work permit or a dependent permit or a student permit.”

C.E.O. Zuniga says that at this time, the process is limited for Guatemalan nationals.

Edmond Zuniga, C.E.O., Ministry of Immigration

“I want to immediately draw your attention, especially for those persons who are from Guatemala. For those persons who are Guatemalans, if you have permanent residency in Belize, that is as far as you can go with immigration status until the situation with Guatemala changes. So if you have permanent residence, you can go and chill in a corner and just listen to the other people.”

A number of persons who have their documents intact say the process to acquire nationality and permanent residency is tedious. Arzu says it wouldn’t take over a year to process the application, once everything including vetting is done without a hitch. But for several Central American nationals, they have been living in Belize for over two decades and even though they have met the requirements their nationality certificate cannot be provided.

Immigrant #1

“I already applied for nationality from 2012. I live here in Belize twenty years already; I went to preschool, primary school and high school and I noh get none of my papers as yet. I noh get my nationality as yet and they already at immigration. I give everything dehn ask me for: like blood test and everything dehn ask me for, I get everything in immigration. They say they will call and call and dehn noh call yet. And I am Salvadoran.”

Immigrant #2

“I deh yah from when I eight years of age. I been to Holy Ghost School; dehn time Philip Nicasio was the principal. All my children born here and I apply for nationality from 2003 and up to now I can’t get through. I do work permit and di stamp from 2016. I just do a work permit di other day because I can’t handle the hundred dollars monthly because I have family to send dah school.”

Most persons were advised to visit the Immigration Department in Belmopan or to have their documents dealt with.

Will the Immigration Department Accept Documents Collected by Dianne Finnegan?

Immigration C.E.O. Edmond Zuniga was also quizzed about the vast amount of documents that were collected at Finnegan’s political office over the course of last week. He did not confirm their status.

Edmond Zuniga, C.E.O., Ministry of Immigration

“I don’t know; I haven’t seen those documents so I don’t know. I can’t speak to that.”

Reporter

“But what do you expect because she collected these identification documents? Mind you they are copies of their identification documents, but what she said that they are trying to assist these people to go through the process. No necessarily offering immigration services per se, but to be assisted.”

Edmond Zuniga

“Yeah, I can’t speak to that. What we have done tonight is for those persons who claim that they have filed documents at immigration, we’ve ask them to please come to Belmopan and talk with us and we look for their files.”

Reporter

“Will you take the documentation if Misses Finnegan provides those to you or that won’t be allowed?”

Edmond Zuniga

“I can’t say that it won’t be allowed. We’d have to see what’s involved.”

Channel 5