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Director of Immigration testifies before Senate Select Committee

After a one month hiatus, the Senate Special Select Committee resumed its duties today with the interrogation of Director of Immigration Diana Locke. Locke appeared in a private session this morning and in the afternoon a public session was held. At the beginning of her testimony Locke was asked about the changes that have been implemented since the Auditor General’s report was presented to the Prime Minister and tabled in the House of Representatives.

Chairman of Senate Select Committee, Aldo Salazar

“What weakness was the visa vetting committee set up to address in particular, what weakness in the system as a follow up to that, how effective has it been in addressing that?”

Director of Immigration, Diana Locke

“I’m not sure I would be able to give you an accurate answer as to why it was set up or what it was set up to stop but it has provided an additional layer of not one person making that final decision but a body of persons who would vet that application, it’s not left to the discretion of one individual.”

Chairman of Senate Select Committee, Aldo Salazar

“Have you found irregularities?”

Director of Immigration, Diana Locke:

“Yes, we have in some of the applications.”

Chairman of Senate Select Committee, Aldo Salazar

Significant?

Director of Immigration, Diana Locke

“In my view yes.”

Chairman of Senate Select Committee, Aldo Salazar

“Not anyone case having significant irregularities but a significant level of irregularities over several cases or applications.”

Director of Immigration, Diana Locke

“Not significant but enough to be concerned.”

Chairman of Senate Select Committee, Aldo Salazar

“Enough to say that it’s a good thing this visa vetting committee… is it effective?”

When someone from another country applies for a Belizean visa, only a photocopy of their passports is sent for vetting. During several sessions of the Senate Select Committee hearing, we’ve heard that these passport photocopies can be tampered with. These passport photocopies are brought in by family members and visa agents. Locke spoke about that aspect of the visa vetting effort.”

Director of Immigration, Diana Locke

“I think yes because primarily I don’t think it should be subjected to one person. The committee finds the task daunting because it never ends. We are meeting every week I was not here today I would be in that room downstairs looking at visa applications and so it is a challenge however I think it’s a necessary challenge that we undertake in the hope that we can at least be certain that there is a process and some level of scrutiny that is taking place on these applications. We have also discussed the possibility of decentralizing some of the visas because even visas for diplomatic missions have to go in front of the committee because of the world all that is in the law and so there has been discussions about making recommendations to have that amended where some discretion would be given the committee to have visas issued for the diplomatic corps and for other cases, clearly documented cases that would be an automatic yes when the request is presented to the committee that those things can be processed at the department and a weekly report provided to the committee; of course there has to be strict guidelines so that we are very clear as to what would be delegated but that is just a discussion at this point in time.”

Senator Mark Lizarraga

“We have seen in the past where the Auditor General has highlighted discrepancies in those photocopies or copied versions of the passport for lack of a better description, what has been put into place to ensure that these copies are in fact real copies?”

Director of Immigration, Diana Locke

“In the visa approval letter the passport number is specified on that number and so the issuing office has an obligation to verify that passport against the actual passport that is presented to them where that visa is going to be placed in.”

Senator Mark Lizarraga

“Okay and then you mentioned family members when you were speaking a while about the interview process, is it in fact because this was another frequently mentioned matter in the report that persons or agents or other people were applying for visas on behalf of potential visitors let’s say but the law spoke about family members and you spoke about family members just now, is it now that only family members can apply?”

Director of Immigration, Diana Locke

“No we have family members that come in, we have agents still.”

Senator Mark Lizarraga

“You still have agents?”

Director of Immigration, Diana Locke

“Yes unfortunately we still have agents. Recently one of them declared herself to me.”

Senator Mark Lizarraga:

“What does the law say?”

Director of Immigration, Diana Locke

“The law does not say anything that… the policy says that any person can apply for a visa but it made no mention that agents are not eligible to apply, we don’t like them I don’t like them but they do make applications.”