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Mr. President, all of my previous contributions to “State of the Nation” Debates in this Senate have been as a member of the Parliamentary Opposition. Today, I have the honour to be making my contribution as a member of the Government of Jamaica.
I have been assigned responsibility by Prime Minister the Honourable Bruce Golding, as Minister of State in the Ministry of National Security and in that capacity, I have been further assigned oversight responsibility for the Department of Correctional Services as well as the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency.
My contribution today will deal with some aspects of those subject areas as well as some general matters in relation to the safety and security of our nation.
Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency [PICA]
I begin with the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency.
Some years ago, a decision was taken to divest the Jamaica Constabulary Force of some functions, which it was felt, could be civilianized. This included the Passport Office and the Immigration Department. Together with the Citizenship Section of the Ministry of National Security, an Executive Agency was created, known as the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency.
This Executive Agency came into existence on June 1, 2007 and therefore completed its first year of operation on May 31, 2008. It is appropriate therefore, that I should give a brief up-date, on the operations of the Agency.
The Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency, as the name implies, has three Units of operational performance.
The Passport Unit which produces and issues passports and other travel documents to Jamaican citizens, has maintained the standard which was set, of processing applications made at its head office in Kingston within seven days and within ten days for applications made at the Montego Bay Office and at our overseas Missions. Given the volume of passport applications, which totalled 202,131 in the first year of operation, this is a commendable achievement.
Seventy-seven percent of all passport applications are received at the Constant Spring Road headquarters of the Agency. This means that an average of 600 persons per day, are dealt with at that office. The requirements of the office have outgrown this location, and accordingly, I wish to advise that the Agency will soon be relocating its operations and corporate offices to more suitable accommodation in downtown Kingston.
Additionally, the Agency will be improving its facility in Montego Bay, and will be seeking to establish an additional location in Mandeville, to provide greater access to customers in central Jamaica.
Importantly, Mr. President, recognizing the need to provide a more responsive service to the Diaspora, the Agency has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, which will result in the placement of Desk Officers from the Passport Immigration and Citizenship Agency, at our missions in New York, Washington, Miami, Toronto and London. The persons to be placed have been selected, and trained, and will take up their positions at the Missions on September 1, 2008.
The Passport Immigration and Citizenship Agency will have two main passport priorities during this financial year. One will be the introduction of the CARICOM passport by January 2009, based on the Government of Jamaica’s commitment to CARICOM.
The other, is to begin the process for the acquisition of a new passport production system. The current technology, while state of the art when it was introduced in 2001, has been surpassed by the current technologies in the industry which are being used to keep up with the advances in travel documents worldwide, and so, we must now improve our technology to keep in line with the industry standards. It may be that the Passport Production System and the Border Management System can be combined, and this is currently being examined in order to determine its feasibility.
The Immigration Unit of the Agency focuses on border security issues, including the granting of landing status to persons entering the country at our airports and seaports. It is this Unit which manages the arrival and departure of individuals as well as the granting of visas and extensions of stay to non-Jamaicans.
The Immigration Unit has been working to reduce the time that it takes to process passengers arriving or departing at the island’s two international airports. According to Immigration Records, in the first year of operation of the Agency, (June 1, 2007 and May 31, 2008) 2,019,055 passengers were processed on arrival through both International Airports, and 2,096,153 passengers were processed as they departed the Island. This is a total of 4,115,208 passengers passing through our airports annually, and represents substantial traffic through our airports.
The improved physical layout at our airports and the technological systems employed, have achieved a considerable reduction in the time it takes to deal with a passenger, which is now an average of three minutes from the time the passenger first interacts with the Immigration Officer. The Immigration Unit will be ensuring that improved business operations, supported by the available information technology systems, in conjunction with the human element – the Immigration Officers, who have undergone extensive training, – will facilitate a smoother and quicker processing of persons using our international airports.
The Citizenship Unit has the responsibility for approving citizenship applications for persons who qualify by reason of descent, as well as preparing for the Minister’s consideration, applications made for citizenship, for reasons other than descent. This Unit has, in the first year of operation of the Executive Agency, cleared up a backlog of over 2,000 applications which had accumulated over a period of several years.
The citizenship processes have been manual. However, a pilot project was instituted recently, to bring state of the art technology, into the citizenship process. Very shortly, the results of the Pilot project will be evaluated and that evaluation will guide a full implementation of the appropriate technologies, and so reduce the processing time for citizenship applications, which admittedly, has been far too long.
So, Mr. President, each Unit – the Passport, the Immigration and the Citizenship Unit, has performed at a high standard and has generally met all the standards of performance that have been set for the new Executive Agency. But there are several areas of the responsibilities of the Agency, which require legislative action.
We have to make decisions regarding modernization of the country’s Immigration Laws. There are, two statutes relating to immigration control in Jamaica – the Immigration Restriction (Commonwealth Citizens) Act, and the Aliens Act, each having widely varying requirements. There has been no major review of either the Immigration Restriction (Commonwealth Citizens) Act which came into effect on the 27th day of December, 1945 or the Aliens Act which came into effect on the 28th day of February, 1946.
This review and modernization will now have to be done. In this regard we will explore the feasibility of combining both laws into one statute containing our immigration laws, as has been done, for example, in Barbados. I am pleased to advise the Senate, that this matter is now before the Ministry of National Security for policy decisions to be taken.
It is also the intention of the Agency to review existing legislation, and in some instances to propose the introduction of legislation, dealing with a range of matters, which include:
a) The issue of Visas;b) Carriers Liability Legislation;c) The Obligations of Port and Airport Managers;d) Powers to enforce compliance with entry requirements; and e) Refugee and Asylum Seekers.
Other mechanisms to enhance immigration controls, such as the development of Standard Operating Procedures, will also have to be considered. Again, I am pleased to advise the Senate, that the preparatory work has been done, and all of these matters will be placed before the Ministry of National Security, for policy decisions to be taken.
It is anticipated that before the end of this legislative year, the Ministry of National Security will have ready to be placed before Parliament, Bills to amend several pieces of legislation and for the introduction of new legislation in respect of some of those matters that I just mentioned.
One matter that I mentioned, is of some concern and requires urgent action. I refer to enforcement of the terms and conditions of stay, which are granted to an individual upon entry into the country. The truth, Mr. President, is that there are some persons who are treating our immigration laws with impunity.
An individual arrives in Jamaica and is given a fixed period of stay. If that individual desires to stay beyond the period given by the Immigration Officer, it is a simple matter of completing an application form, requesting an extension of stay. Normally, persons should apply to the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency for an extension of stay, before the date stamped in their passport, as the time up to which they are allowed to stay in the island. These requests are usually granted because theygenerally relate to work permit purposes, students at tertiary institutions or the dependents of such persons.
However, if persons overstay, but visit the offices of the Agency voluntarily, after the expiry date originally granted, they are usually given a further two to three weeks (depending on their country of origin) to leave the island, and in this case, the Passports of the offenders are retained by the Agency until they comply, or until their appeal is heard, because Commonwealth citizens have a right of appeal and this right is also granted, administratively, to Aliens.
But there are those persons who do not visit the Agency at all, to seek an extension of stay. They simply decide to stay as long as they wish, and very often, there is difficulty in locating these persons, as they move from the address given on the Immigration and Customs forms. When they are caught up with however, they expect that they must be allowed further time in the country and they do everything possible, to get an extended stay. I do not believe that most of these persons would think of treating the immigration laws of other countries, in that manner.
Something has to be done about this and we propose to take a number of steps in this regard. The Agency will do the following:
1 The Agency is presently preparing an “information sheet”, which will be placed in a person’s Passport on arrival, which will outline the conditions on which they are landed. This is being done, so that no one can use the excuse of being unaware of the rules and the requirements of the country’s immigration laws and procedures.
2 For those who do not seek the extension of stay within the required time, the Agency is developing a proposal for a charge to be imposed for the period of overstay. The proposal is for a standard charge for overstay up to 30 days, and significantly higher charges for periods of overstay above 30 days. The intention is that the charges will be set at such a level that it will be sufficiently punitive and thereby prevent the widespread practice of unauthorized overstay. Work is being done on this proposal as I speak, and will be completed shortly.
3 The Agency is proposing to upgrade its border-control management software system, so as to enable it, on any given day, to produce a list of persons whose permitted stay has expired.
4 The Agency is establishing an Investigation and Surveillance Unit, which will have specific responsibility to investigate persons who overstay their time, or commit other violations of the Immigration, laws of the country. This Unit will work closely with the Jamaica Constabulary Force and will put us in a position to enforce the removal from our shores, of persons who ignore our immigration laws.
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