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Jun 2, 1999

15,000 apply for amnesty

The Human Rights Commission says the government’s Amnesty Program is not reaching the people who need it most, mainly because they are intimidated by the heavy police presence at Amnesty Centers and often unable to afford the 200 dollar registration fee. The H.R.C.B. says in addition to the police at the centers, the recent Operation Fireball, which rounded up, detained and deported many illegal residents has frightened many people who would be eligible to register. The H.R.C.B. also contends there have been frequent and aggressive check points on the roads between villages and near Amnesty Centers. Within the last two weeks two families sought the Commission’s help after their heads of household were detained by police when they went to get their police records for the amnesty registration. In both cases the men were released without being charged, but the Human Rights Commission says they consider this action to be very intimidating and unacceptable. They are also asking that the 200 dollar fee be waived or payable in installments since it is creating an economic hardship for many families. To enable those who need amnesty to take advantage of the government program without fear, H.R.C.B. is asking the government to ensure there will be no further rounding up of undocumented workers during the next few weeks, that the police be removed from Amnesty Centers unless a specific problem arises and that the police checkpoints be stopped. They also say there needs to be clarification of the closing date since the Ministry of National Security had said the Amnesty Program would last six weeks, but the actual closing date is June 17, only four weeks after it began.

Today Amnesty Project Coordinator William Skeen rejected the Human Rights Commission’s characterization of the way the program is being carried out and says that almost half of the targeted thirty thousand undocumented immigrants have already completed their applications. He says that during the initial week, B.D.F. soldiers were posted at Amnesty Centers, but they have since been re-deployed since their presence did appear to be intimidating to some amnesty seekers. Right now, Skeen says there are no police at centers in Orange Walk, Corozal or San Ignacio while the rest have only one officer. He says the police presence is necessary to ensure the safety of the immigration workers. As an example he cited an incident in Belize City this week in which an agent was told by one of the program officers that he could not collect money from the immigrants he said he was representing and the woman’s husband threatened the officer with bodily harm. In Corozal some youths came into the center with a basketball and when they were asked to leave they bounced the ball off the female immigration officer’s head. Regarding the two men who were detained by police, Skeen said one of the men had been wanted for a robbery, but was released due to lack of evidence. Since the start of the program on May 17, over 15 thousand applications representing three thousand heads of households and their families, have been accepted for processing. As far as the application fee is concerned, only the people in the more remote areas of Toledo have requested installment payments and they were told that the 200 dollars is not due until their residency is granted and they will have another 2 months or so to save the amount. Skeen also stressed that the closure date has always been the 17th of June, but this is subject to change if there is a last minute rush to centers.

Today the United Democratic Party also took the opportunity to question the Amnesty Program saying “certain” immigration officials have indicated that those given residency under the program will be eligible for citizenship — and to vote — in one year since the four years they lived in Belize illegally will be accepted in their applications. The U.D.P. says this violates the law since nationality can be granted only after the applicant has resided in Belize for five years. However, the Immigration Department tells News Five that amnesty is essentially the same as legal residency and that as far as they know the requirements for citizenship will be the same as for anyone else: five years of legal residency.


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