In an emotionally charged debate, the Upper House on Tuesday approved an amendment to immigration laws which paves the way for thousands of immigrants to become citizens of Antigua & Barbuda.
The Immigration and Passport (Amendment) Act 2015 stipulates that non-nationals who, for whatever reason, had obtained “gaps” in their “time” are now able to pay outstanding sums making them eligible for citizenship.
Before the amendment, those individuals, many of whom came to Antigua & Barbuda as children, were denied citizenship because they either failed to pay their fees or do so on time.
Much like in the Lower House, debate on the Bill dominated discussion on Tuesday, with support from both sides of the aisle and a few dissenting views.
Government MPs spoke passionately about the amendment, and in the case of Senator Hendren Parker, he could not hold back the tears.
With his voice trembling, Parker who was born in the United States Virgin Islands, said it was a personal matter for him considering that his mother left Antigua for two decades in search of a better life.
Parker told Parliament that those opposed to the amendment should focus more on “whether people are good citizens,” as opposed to how they came about their citizenship.
An OBSERVER media publication, in November last year, found that many people who were brought here as children, were having difficulties finding employment, advancing their careers and furthering their education, because their parents had not regularised their status over the years.
Senator Mary-Claire Hurst described the plight of these individuals “as a wrong which will be made right”.
She told the Senate that many people were disqualified from citizenship through no fault of theirs and added that in some cases the immigration department, due to their delay tactics was responsible for people defaulting on their time.
But Hurst warned the people who would be approved for citizenship under the new law “should not abuse it.”
“You have to play by the rules. It’s a privilege and not a right,” she added.
The most resistance to the Bill came from opposition senator Dr Jacqui Quinn-Leandro who wants citizenship to be granted on a case-by-case basis.
She said the amendment rewards people who have the means to pay, but intentionally broke the law.
“You have persons who have been here for years and they flouted the laws. Plenty of them are working and are not paying their contributions. We are saying this is not right,” Dr Quinn-Leandro said.
Dr Quinn-Leandro wants people who have been found to be breaking the law to “start over,” while noting that she does not favour deportation.
A person qualifies for Antigua & Barbuda citizenship after lawfully residing in the country for seven years.
But her colleague, Senator Anthony Stuart, said he supported the amendments in light of the Citizenship by Investment Programme, of which he is a long-time opponet.
“If people can pay two hundred thousand dollars and get citizenship, then those persons who have lived among us can pay and move along the pathway to citizenship,” Stuart said.
The Bill must have the signature of the governor general and must be published in the official gazette before it can become law.