harmaine Gandhi-Andrews

‘Frequent flyer’

Chief Immigration Officer

Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews.

IN the years she’s been acting and appointed Chief Immigration Officer (CIO), Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews has travelled abroad hundreds of times for training, causing major discomfort at the Immigration Division.

Adding to this unease is the fact that citizens now have to wait up to an exasperating six months for a passport.

Gandhi-Andrews was officially appointed CIO by letter dated June 2, 2019, retroactive to June 14, 2015.

She acted as CIO from June 2015 until May 2019.

Several Immigration officers have complained to the Sunday Express that there is a leadership crisis at the Immigration Division, and it is unfair and unacceptable that citizens have to wait up to six months to get a passport while the head of Immigration presides over inefficiency and frequently flies out of Trinidad regionally and internationally.

The Sunday Express was provided with Immigration travel logs which show the CIO is out of the country frequently (see Page 5).

The majority of her travels are to Miami and New York, as well as St Lucia and Canada, according to the travel logs.

In a letter dated September 21, 2017, titled “No confidence in acting Chief Immigration Officer Mrs Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews”, to Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke and signed by 300 Immigration officers, chairperson of the PSA Immigration Section ­Natruda Campbell cited frequent travel as one of many complaints made against the CIO at the time.

The letter called for the removal of Gandhi-Andrews as acting CIO.

She was, however, made permanent in the position, and the operations of Immigration Division went from alarming to critical, according to Immigration officials.

The letter stated back then that Gandhi-Andrews has openly stated on several occasions, at both internal and external fora, that she was the only person in the entire Immigration Division qualified to attend conferences and foreign training since other officers in the Division cannot be trusted and are incompetent.

As such she travels frequently to attend seminars and courses, at the Government’s expense.

Staff say none of the knowledge has been imparted to officers of the Division to facilitate any growth and development.

Almost three years later, officers say the problem continues to be ­pervasive.

Speaking on the condition of ano­nymity for fear of being victimised, officers told the Sunday Express the Immigration Division is at the worst it has ever been because of poor leadership.

“It is embarrassing for us as a country. Imagine we are supposed to be the economic hub of the Caribbean, and people have to wait months for a passport. She (Gandhi-­Andrews) is always out of the country. We don’t see her at all. We don’t know how much of those trips are official or personal. “If it is official, she alone goes because she does not give anyone the opportunity to represent the Division. She does not allow it,” said one officer.

Prior to being appointed CIO, Gandhi-Andrews was director of the counter-trafficking unit at the National Security Ministry, deputy CIO, and acting CIO until she was appointed as the substantive holder of the position.

Passport delays

Officers told the Sunday Express there was a time when a person could have walked into the Immigration Division and get a passport within one week.

Gone are those days, as people have to wait months to get an appointment and then months again before they actually have their passport in hand.

The Sunday Express last week checked online for the next available date to renew a passport in Port of Spain and the earliest date was five months from now—in July.

Immigration officers said ­further to this, the wait for the renewal is another two months—so it ranges between six and eight months to get a passport renewed.

The same applies to obtain a new passport.

In the letter to Duke, Campbell stated “an acute shortage of stocked Republic of Trinidad and Tobago passports exists within the Division. This has resulted in the citizens of this country being held at ransom, unable to proceed with their travel plans and having their constitutional right to freedom of movement ­infringed”.

In 2020, the problem is said to have worsened, and the majority of people seeking passports are being forced to pay $550 for an expedited passport as opposed to the regular fee of $250.

“People should not be paying $550 to have their passport expedited if the system was working properly. There was a period of time in 2011-2012 when Mr Jagdish Semurath was in charge of the passport section, you could have gotten a first-time passport issued in a week’s time, and you could have gotten a renewal in three days,” said the officer.

“The Immigration Division used to function up to par, but now it is a shame and disgrace when compared to how other authorities function in the world,” the officer added.

If $550 is paid for an expedited passport, it can be obtained in seven days, but proof of the urgency must be given, such as a doctor’s letter.

The walk-in system has also been discontinued, so people have no ­other way to get an appointment than via telephone or online to see an ­Immigration officer.

Another officer noted the Immigration Division also has to handle applications from foreign missions such as those in Caracas, Washington, London, Miami, New York and Toronto, which all go to the Port of Spain Immigration Division for ­processing.

The Sunday Express was told the process was quicker when there was a shift system, where officers worked 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.; and 10 p.m. to 6 p.m. (overnight) in the production areas.

The overnight shift has, however, been discontinued.

Officers said there is a further delay in purchasing booklets, as part of the passport has to be purchased but this is not done until the stock is depleted and an order is then made.

There is also a backlog of applications for permanent residency and citizenship, officers say.

“We have about 2,000 permanent resident and citizenship files backed-logged. A resident application is supposed to reach the minister’s desk within six to eight months, right now we have files in Immigration dating back as far as 2014 and 2015,” stated an officer.

According to the officer, the CIO “wants to see every file”, but ­because she is hardly in office the files keep mounting.

Victimisation

The Sunday Express was told the CIO’s appointment is being challenged in the Industrial Court by Immigration official Sherwin Raphael, who was of the view the process was flawed and biased in Gandhi-­Andrews’ favour.

The biggest peeve in the Division remains her absence.

“Even for technical meetings and management meetings, we don’t see her. Officers, except the favoured few, do not have access to the CIO. Those who see her are mostly the ­officers are the airport, as they see her going and coming when she flies,” said an officer.

Officers said their concerns about overtime, travelling and other ­allowances remain in limbo, and even officers who work overtime are not being paid their due.

“The morale is very low, officers are disenchanted, there are officers who will come out to work, but the fact is they not getting their money on time or sometimes at all,” said an officer.

The Sunday Express was told numerous judgments have been made against the Immigration Division in the courts, based on flawed instructions.

“Directives were given by the court to be followed, but were never implemented. A magistrate stated that there ought to be a review of the special enquiry system. This was never acknowledged,” the officer said.

Officers said there are also major OSH (occupational safety and health) concerns at the airport and ports of entry, where officers are not getting proper equipment.

Complaints have, however, fallen on deaf ears.

The Sunday Express sent questions to Gandhi-Andrews on February 5, via WhatsApp and e-mail, but there has been no response to date.

The WhatsApp questions were apparently read, as indicated by two blue ticks.

In addition, this reporter was subsequently blocked from WhatsApp by Gandhi-­Andrews.

Phone calls were also not returned.

The Sunday Express also sent questions to line minister for Immigration, National ­Security Minister Stuart Young, but there has been no response.

The Sunday Express contacted Duke, who responded yesterday: “I will only say the Immigration workers have lost enthusiasm in carrying out their duties due to a toxic work environment [created] by the leadership of Immigration Division.”

Questions sent to

Gandhi-Andrews

on February 5, 2020:

Dear Mrs Gandhi Andrews,

Employees at the Immigration division have told the Express that there is a “leadership crisis” at the division, and have disclosed a number of issues they believe are affecting the smooth functioning and operations of immigration services. Please answer the following questions:

1. Concerns have been raised about your frequent travel. The Express was told you are always out of the country and every month you are absent. The Express has copies of travel logs which show your frequent travel. Are these trips personal or professional? Did you make a decision that only you would travel on public business?

2. A motion of no confidence was brought against you in 2018 which was signed by hundreds of employees. They believe it was swept under the carpet. What is the status of that?

3. The legality of your appointment as CIO was challenged in the industrial court by Mr Sherwin Raphael. The claim states that the process was flawed and you were appointed above others. Do you think this affects your credibility to lead the Immigration division?

4. The Express was told there are over 2,000 files of applications for permanent residency which are delayed due to your insistence to see every file dating back to 2015. Is this true? How many applications for permanent residency and work permits are outstanding to date?

5. The Express was told that there was a time getting a passport would take days, but under your tenure it is between six to eight months. The delay in procuring material, the low morale of officers, the disbanding of overtime work, the failure to pay owed overtime, disbanding of night shift employees, victimisation of some persons are just some of the issues said to be hampering productivity. Can you respond to these allegations?

6. Why did you direct the abolition of a walk-in system to get passports? What happens to persons who have emergencies such as medical issues and need to travel urgently? What happens to persons in the airline industry such as pilots who require new passports often?

7. Do you attend the weekly and monthly technical meetings at Immigration? Officers claim you are rarely present and always MIA—missing in action.

8. Is it true that you are not effectively utilising powers of the CIO with respect to illegal persons in T&T detained at the detention centre? Officers claim that issues are also left to linger for months.

9. Officers claim they are not provided with proper uniforms and safety equipment. Can you respond to this?

10. There is also the claim that you have presided over a number of losses at the courts with respect to immigration matters, and that recommendations given by judges and magistrates with respect to the system were never implemented—for example, a review of the special query procedures for illegal persons. How many matters that were brought against the Immigration division under your tenure failed at the courts?

11. Officers claim under your leadership the Immigration division is at the worst it has ever been and the public suffers from these inefficiencies. Can you please respond?

12. There are claims that you are to be moved to the position of a permanent secretary. Are any such talks taking place?

13. Do you think that operations are up to par under your direction?

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