Chronicling the Culture of Corruption at Immigration
The Immigration Department has an entrenched culture of corruption and hustling, from the top of the ladder to the bottom. That is what former administrative officer in the Department Teresita Castellanos bravely said at Wednesday’s public hearings of the Senate Special Select Committee. The issue of this culture has been brought up to multiple visitors to the inquiry, who all agreed in one way or another. In light of Castellanos’ raw, emotional admission, we re-package those statements and try to make sense of them as the Committee moves forward and digs deeper. Aaron Humes reports.
Aaron Humes, Reporting
Former Administrative Officer in the Department of Immigration, Teresita Castellanos, laid bare on Wednesday the truth as she saw it and, she claimed, as others knew all along: the Department was, and is, corrupt.
Teresita Castellanos, Former Administrative Officer, Immigration Department [File: February 15th, 2017]
“The Immigration Department has an entrenched culture of corruption and hustling; milking the cow we say, from the very top to the very bottom of the ladder. No politician can force any public officer to do illegal acts when performing our job. And if we do, then we have to face the same consequences as the politicians, for the Belizean people are demanding justice. There are a few good honest and dedicated officers, but there were not enough trusted staff to oversee the daily operations of the sections and at the district offices and border stations. The call for help was not answered and this inquiry is the result.”
The persons to whom Castellanos refers are all past invitees to the Senate Special Select Committee, though in the case of former Acting Director of the Department Maria Marin, Castellanos gave her credit for trying to change the corruption culture, with limited success.
Maria Marin, Former Director of Immigration [File: January 11th, 2017]
“Like I mentioned, the culture was something that – it was a different culture that had been ingrained in the Department at the time. We were basically trying to fix that culture, change that culture; it’s not easy. And we had our – what I like to call our core management team, who were the finance officer, the admin officer and the I.T. manager, visiting the different stations, offices. We have reports, like I mentioned, of the offices that they visited as early as – I think it was March, April, August of 2013, as early as then. We had quarterly OIC’s or Port Commanders’ meetings when we consistently reminded officers, OIC’s, of what we were seeing and what we were not seeing.”
Three weeks after that appearance, Gordon Wade, the officer then in charge of Nationality, tried to suggest that Marin and her boss, Ruth Meighan, were part of that culture. In the case of the nationality residence requirement, he said they were bending the rules to suit them when needed.
Gordon Wade, Former Officer in Charge, Nationality Section [File: February 2nd, 2017]
“A simple example is in the application for registration through Section ten, where the requirements ask that you be ordinarily residing in Belize for five years. In my view, if you show five-year permits in Belize I would make a note of that. If you couldn’t show five legal years in Belize and you would have shown maybe you had two or three children born in Belize attending school, and I would forward that to the Director stating that the person doesn’t have or isn’t able to show five legal years living in Belize but have presented proof of being in Belize by having three children born here; then they would have that power to decide that’s ordinary residence, that is recommended; that is what I would consider. Like I said, I can’t speak for her, what she is referring to, but being in the Department for that time, that is what I noticed.”
While former Director Ruth Meighan did not talk specifically of a culture within the Department, she did take responsibility for apparent laxness in checking and vetting files.
Mark Lizarraga, Business Community Senator [File: January 25th, 2017]
“Having seen all that has come out, would you recommend that a full audit be done of the Department and the files?”
Ruth Meighan, Former Director of Immigration [File: January 25th, 2017]
“Certainly. So your recommendation would be done for those years and other years as well, would you say? So you agree that a full audit should be done?”
“…I agree, yes. I think I may have referred to it earlier, where there are certain process and overnight role that probably needs to be strengthened; in addition to that, maybe collaboration with some of our agencies in terms of vetting and verifying information. I think that would’ve helped.”
Reverend Ashley Rocke, Church Senator
“So you do agree that there were some misgivings in all of this?”
“Based on the report that is presented, yes. I will not say that the Auditor General is way off on anything; the recommendations are recommendations and I think that they should be viewed as recommendations; and if they are ways to strengthen the Department, then yes, I agree with the recommendations.”
Ultimately, then-C.E.O. Candelaria Saldivar-Morter agreed that things must change, and soon.
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter, Former C.E.O., Ministry of Immigration [File: February 9th, 2017]
“One of the reasons I put emphasis on the whole restructuring and reform was because no band aid fix – there was no band aid fix for what was wrong at the Immigration and Nationality Services Department. And that is why we put so much efforts, weekends, all-day session, in trying to push that forward. Because we realized that no matter what band aid fix we did. We would still be having a lot of issues. And that is my person feeling in terms of Immigration and Nationality Services. There is no band-aid fix for it. We need a complete reform and restructuring in order that these issues could be corrected. And I am talking about the systems, the resources, the human resources. We need a complete reform and structuring. Otherwise, ten years from now, we’ll be having another Senate Hearing.”
Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.