Switching gears now, in 1984, an amnesty program allowed 8,680 undocumented migrants to become Belizean citizens. A similar program in 1999 assisted 11,168 migrants. And now, the government is planning another amnesty program for 2022, but this time, the estimated number of undocumented migrants has more than doubled in the last decade - somewhere between forty to sixty thousand migrants. And the Ministry of Immigration believes that it's time to get this situation under control.

The Amnesty 2022 program hopes to regularize the vast number of irregular migrants - both the undocumented and the asylum seekers - by giving them the chance to apply for permanent residency. But with amnesty comes a whole heap of concerns and criticisms - including those about political gain and impacting demographics.

That's why the ministry held an information session today to detail their plan, which they hope can be completed by January 2023. Courtney Menzies attended and has this story.

The Amnesty 2022 program will put thousands of currently undocumented migrants on the path to citizenship. The government's plan is to allow registered asylum seekers, those who have lived in the country over a decade, have children older than one-year, have been married to a Belizean for a year, have been in a common law union for five years with a Belizean, or have maintained gainful employment in Belize for at least 5 years to apply for permanent residency.

Director of the Nationality and Passports Department Mario Arzu, explained why this move is necessary:

Mario Arzu, Director, Nationality and Passports Department
"We need to start at a point where we can address the large migrant population that is in Belize. We need to start at a point. We can come up with several reasons, we can roll over to the Director of Border Management and Immigration Services and say listen, start deporting people, get everybody out and get them out of the country and that may or may not solve the problem. We know for a fact that if you start that way, we're going to end up in more problems than we ever want to imagine. The most humanitarian, the most, I could consider most practical approach, is to address the issues that we are facing now."

"Remember these are people who are living here, these are not people who are coming here, these are people who are here, we need to try to regularize their status, give them some status in Belize that they can continue to contribute, that they can continue to be a part of our Belizean society and ensure that they are accounted for. So we address the various issues, we address the humanitarian fctor, we address the security factor, because remember having 30-40,000 peo-ple in your country you do not know who they are is a risk so we can address that factor as well."

Providing amnesty to these irregular migrants helps them and the country in more ways - and can even put Belizean born children in schools, since parents need an ID to register them.

It also helps to combat crime such as human trafficking and to weed out fugitives.

Mario Arzu, Director, Nationality and Passports Department
"Irregular migration breeds illegality and abuse. The specific mandate of the ministry of immigration is to manage migration so by this initiative we are managing migration. As elaborated by the directors, many migrants find themselves victims of human trafficking, noted as modern slavery, it continues irregular migrants because of their vulnerability are often employed at very low wages and work in dreadful conditions, additionally many are paid off the books and therefore generate little tax revenues."

Hon. Ramon Cervantes, Minister of State, Ministry of Immigration
"When you give someone permanent residence, you're giving that personal legal status, so that person will not be at the mercy of those that are trafficking because that person is a legal permanent resident of our country so there will be no need for that person to be exposed to that abuse, whatever comes with human trafficking."

Debra Baptist-Estrada, Dir. of Border Management & Immigration Service Dept. "You would see from previous news reports and so on that in fact we have had individuals in the country who are hiding and nobody can account for these individuals. If there's an amnesty program and these persons put forth themselves like in the case of Mr Bulux of recent. He has been living here for an extensive period of time, he applied for permanent residency when his documents when for security vetting, it was discovered that this gentleman was wanted by the Guatemalan authority for genocide."

But with the promise of amnesty comes the shadow of xenophobia - and Belizeans have already taken to Facebook to complain about such a program. That's why the ministry will embark on an education campaign to inform the public and also allow them to be a part of the process. But today CEO Dr Gilroy Middleton answered some of the major concerns.

Dr. Gilroy Middleton, CEO, Ministry of Immigration
"In terms of the political ramifications, as noted, what would be provided to successful applicants would be permanent residence with a path to citizenship, this path involves a 5 year waiting period and other legal requirements. So that would address individuals saying the government of Belize is giving status to illegal migrants in terms of trying to secure a vote. Five years from now, the next election would have already happened."

"These individuals being a burden on public funds, the fact is we're looking at individuals that have been in Belize, are in Belize, residing in Belize, having families in Belize. So these are people that are already here. They are already contributing and through this mechanism literally it would take them from an undocumented status to a documented status is that they would be contributing more into the country legally."

"Some may say they will take our jobs, as noted these are individuals that are already here and specifically a majority of these individuals are currently working and they work specifically in agriculture, an area where the average Belizean does not currently work in, where we would like to encourage the average belziean to work in with ariculture programs at the University of Belize and other areas."

And while casual labour is one thing - the changing demographics of Belize is another - and since the 80's - we have seen the increasing latinization of Belize - which - critics would argue - will continue with this amnesty:

Hon. Ramon Cervantes, Minister of State, Ministry of Immigration
"The program is for migrants, it's not specific to any ethnicity or any person from any country, it's for migrants that are living in Belize that are part of Belize, have been contributing to Belize and once they fit the criteria they quality."

The ministry plans to have their registration centers set out by April 2022, which will be followed by a four month registration process, and a six month vetting and card issuing process for successful applicants.

Children in home or foster care can also apply to the program upon recommendation by the Ministry of Human Development.

Difference Between Permanent Residence and Citizenship

And as you just heard, while permanent residency can lead to getting citizenship, there's a five year wait time. Citizenship is accompanied with more rights and responsibilities - including being able to vote in elections. The Director of the Nationality and Passports Department explained more about the difference between the two.

Mario Arzu, Director, Nationality and Passports Department
"Permanent residence and citizenship are two permanent status but affords different privileges. The permanent residence under normal circumstances, you have to be living in Belize for a year, after acquiring permanent residence, five years later that person can apply for citizenship. What is afforded to you under a permanent residence status is that you can live, you could work, you could go to school, you don't necessarily need to keep extending your permit to remain, you can remain with that document permanently. As opposed to citizenship, you are entitled to get a Belize passport, that's number one, you can vote in general elections which means you can apply for a voter's ID, it affords you all privileges that a citizen of Belize can have."

So, to underscore again, the Amnesty program begins by April of 2022 - and there are an estimated 40 - 60,000 undocumented migrants.

Channel 7