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UDP places Immigration Ministry under microscope

PoliticsUDP places Immigration Ministry under microscope

Photo: Hon. Ramon “Monchi” Cervantes

by Kory Leslie (Freelance Writer)

BELIZE CITY, Fri. Jan. 20, 2023

The Opposition is calling on the Briceño administration to answer key questions that it has laid out in a press release regarding what has been taking place within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Immigration. The UDP is seeking, among other things, to find out the reasons for the reassignment of the former Minister of State within the Immigration Ministry, Hon. Ramon “Monchi” Cervantes.

Earlier this month, it was announced that Hon. Cervantes would be transferred from the Foreign Affairs and Immigration Ministry to the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management, which is currently headed by Hon. Orlando Habet. This prompted speculation that some type of wrongdoing on Hon. Cervantes’ part had led to the transfer—as is typically the case when any reshuffling take place within Cabinet. Prime Minister Briceño, however, had told local reporters that Hon. Cervantes was simply being placed in a ministry in which his skills could be most useful. “Looking around we are seeing that the issue of climate change has become a burning topic worldwide, and it requires a lot of the attention of Minister “Landy” Habet. Minister Habet has so much to do with these issues, both locally and internationally and he has a fairly big ministry, so we felt it was best to move “Monchi”, one of our capable ministers of state and put him to work along with Landy, “ the PM had said, and he had pointed to various developments within NEMO, the Solid Waste Management Authority and the Fire Service as justification for the transfer of Hon. Cervantes.

The Opposition stated in its press release, however, that it suspects there were other reasons for the transfer.

“Prime Minister Briceño says he did this because Cervantes was one of the ‘most capable and intelligent Ministers of State” in his government and Minister Habet needed help, since with his ministry there are responsibilities both nationally and internationally. He also named no replacement for Cervantes in the Ministry of Immigration. The question, then, is if there is not also national and international responsibilities in the Ministry of FOREIGN Affairs, FOREIGN Trade and IMMIGRATION? As omniscient as Eamon Courtenay is, wouldn’t any Foreign Minister need assistance to oversee the rollout of a new passport system and the undertaking of a generational amnesty program? The Prime Minister’s reasoning for the removal of Cervantes makes no sense. For the second year in a row, the Prime Minister has removed the worst performing member of Cabinet with the most flies circling their name. We call on the substantive minister to tell this nation what is the real reason for the removal of Monchi Cervantes from the Immigration Ministry,” the release stated.

The press release also outlined issues with the ongoing launch of the new passport system and has requested an update on the extension of the Ministry of Immigration’s amnesty program for irregular migrants living in Belize. The passport system, officially launched last October as the Electronic Passport Issuance and Control System (EPICS), which includes the placement of an electronic chip into each passport with the holder’s digital image and the GOB’S signature of authenticity, is aimed at digitizing the passport application and review process. At the launch, the Minister of Immigration, Hon. Eamon Courtenay, expressed his confidence in the new system, stating that the GOB would “attain an elevated level of security and virtually eliminate corruption and fraud when issuing e-passports”, and “end the long lines and hours of waiting at the immigration offices.”

The Opposition’s press release, however, calls on “Minister Courtenay to tell this nation why residents of Belize City and Belmopan need to wait five and a half months to get an appointment to apply for a Belizean passport. Right now the earliest appointment date to apply for a passport in Belize City is July 4, 2023, and Belmopan is May 26, 2023.” The Opposition goes on to ask in the release, “Is this the way the new system is expected to work? We have also seen Belizeans all over complaining that after their appointment they have waited over six weeks and gotten no updates. Is this the way the new system is expected to work? We also have heard of reports from inside the department that there are still well connected people being moved ahead of the virtual line for appointments and processing of passports. We were promised that the new system would eliminate this. Is this the way the new system is expected to work?”

Notably, Minister Courtenay did address the issue in a conversation with the media last week, stating that the cause of the backlog was an underestimation of the demand for the new passports, which resulted in his Ministry ordering less passports than were needed. He, has however, given his assurance that the department will be receiving a new stock of passports by the 27th of January, and another supply in the subsequent weeks, which should alleviate the current delay of appointments.

Finally, the Opposition is also requesting an update on the extension of the Immigrant Amnesty Program, which was given a three-month extension last December. The extension was met with commendation from several international humanitarian organizations; however, the UDP alleges that “only a fraction of the number of people expected to qualify have applied to the program.” Further, the party feels that the GoB’s efforts have not been sufficient to convince the public that this Amnesty Program is not a scheme to illegally provide citizenship to undocumented migrants. The UDP has therefore called on Hon. Courtenay to provide an update on this and on his plans for the program after its February expiration.

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