By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
AUSTERITY measures announced by the government will not affect the Department of Immigration, according to Immigration Minister Brent Symonette, pictured, who yesterday pointed to the high volume of permit applications as the greatest challenge faced by officials.
Mr Symonette explained the inundated system is further exacerbated by outdated manual processing, and limited physical capacity at the aging rented complex on Hawkins Hill.
Targeting the department’s extensive backlog and increasing processing turnaround as his primary objective this term, Mr Symonette spoke of plans for infrastructure upgrades and policy reform during an interview and tour of the department with The Tribune.
He pitched the idea of introducing ceilings on permits for domestic jobs, and other industries; however, he admitted he did not expect the suggestion to be favourably received.
“As you came in the building, we’ve just had to have new windows put into this building, the elevator didn’t work, and the bathrooms have been out of order for months. So when you talk about backlog, that’s some of my problems,” Mr Symonette said.
“When people talk about it being a slow process, it’s a slow process.”
Inside his office on the fourth floor, boxes filled with files littered the floor.
Pointing to one cluster, he told The Tribune it represented a collection of work permit applications of Haitian nationals that have been living and working lawfully in the country for the past decade.
He said he planned to fast track those files in a bid to reduce a backlog that grew incrementally by the thousands each month.
“They would normally have to get enrolled, scanned, put on an agenda, have a board meeting, so to get rid of the backlog I will sign these off without all of that happening,” he said.
“There’s always consideration being given to speed up the process but there are several different problems, and this applies to all permits. Quite often the full requisite number of documents are not sent in, so they’re missing something. Sometimes when they’re sent in, they can’t find the file.
“There are at least, probably a 1,000 applications minimum per week in this building, of all types. We probably do about 5,000 applications a month, that’s coming in.
“We fall behind on the best of my estimation about a 1,000 a month that we just cannot process because of restrictions, so I’m going backwards every month.”
From 9am until around noon, the department is filled to capacity with applicants in a line that spills out the door and oftentimes down the street.
At present, there is no capacity to filter incoming persons and their requests for citizenship, permanent residence, residency, spousal permits, annual visitor and work permits.
“You will see every floor is flooded with people, so we have some serious problems,” Mr Symonette said.
“All of it is not our fault, a lot of it is, but a lot of people come here and their delivery postal address is general post office. They don’t have minutes on their phone, they switch their phone or they see a number come up they don’t want to take the call. So we have letters waiting to be collected that we have no way of getting to these people, and they’ve been approved.
“You don’t send in your birth certificate or it gets lost, and we do tend to lose a lot of documents, that’s a common complaint. Our registry where we keep all the files is too small. If I had it my way and money was no object I’d move certain sections of the Department of Immigration out of here to free up other sections but we have to live with it.”
The government has rented the Hawkins Hill building for more than 30 years, according to Mr Symonette, who noted that the previous administration renewed the lease for another seven years last term.
Since taking up the post, Mr Symonette said he’s reinstated a few policies implemented under the last Free National Movement administration like the extension of work permits to two or three years, and is looking to reinstate his authority to issue permanent residency for spouses. Mr Symonette said he’s also established an agreement with the Registrar General’s Office that will allow immigration officials to look at birth registers to determine independently whether someone has a Bahamian birth certificate. This will drastically reduce waiting times for document verification at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre.
Mr Symonette told The Tribune that significant progress could be achieved without introducing additional legislation but policy changes. The department is in the midst of transitioning to a new computer system, and the updated programme promises to both modernise and expedite services.
However, he maintained that the high volume of permits was bolstered by an “insatiable demand” for foreign domestic labour.
“There is an insatiable demand by people who live in this country to have people work in their houses and gardens. You would be surprised. A lot of Bahamians don’t want to work in those positions, (but) they’ll work at a hotel.
“I tried it the last time I was in here, to stop issuing permits for gardeners and some of the people were almost ready to kill me.
Mr Symonette continued: “The main problem here that people don’t recognise is volume, just pure volume and there is a lot of corruption involved. People who have false birth certificates.
“Digitisation will do a lot of things we’ll be able to track applications. You can track an application down to who last touched it (at the Passport Office), so if we can do that here there will be no excuse for losing files. Where it is, what has come in, and the file just moves electronically as opposed to what you see here of boxes moving up and down floors. You take a picture in the morning there are people lined up on the sides, each floor is full of people just trying to get something done.”
During his national address last month, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis announced a variety of conservative fiscal measures, including a ten per cent cut in spending in all government ministries and no new public sector hiring.
Yesterday, Mr Symonette said: “Austerity has not really hit immigration, we were able to increase in this year’s budget by about $400,000 the amount of money to be spent on repatriation of illegal immigrants, so we have more money in that area. We’re potentially ready to engage a number of recruits so you’ll see if you look at my budget, the emoluments side has gone up by some $4m because of some new trainees that are coming in.
“It’s a huge number, an overinflated number at one time, but we will reduce the amount of overtime. Immigration has a tremendous, overtime bill because of the airports, the various islands we have to cover. So hopefully the new recruits will reduce the overtime bill so there will be a savings that can be transferred over.”
The department spends more than $200,000 a month on overtime pay, he said.
As for the out of order bathrooms, Mr Symonette said they are coming back into service gradually.