Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-GUYANA: State Employees Denied U.S. Visas

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Nov 2 2001 (IPS) - Two government employees have been denied U.S. visas in apparent retaliation for Guyana’s reluctance to accept more than 300 deportees from the United States. Canadian officials are following the case and may take similar measures against Guyanese travelers.

The civil servants had sought to attend professional training courses. U.S. embassy officials reportedly told them they were disqualified from obtaining entry visas because of a bitter row between the two governments.

At issue is a U.S. plan to send people from its immigration prisons to this country on South America’s Caribbean coast. U.S. officials say the deportees are Guyanese; the government here is not so sure and has said that, in any event, it is unwilling to accept so many deportees, apparently including hardened convicts, all at once.

Over the past five years, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) has intensified its efforts to expel foreign nationals convicted of felonies. Guyana ranks among the top five Caribbean recipients of deportees.

The U.S. departments of state and justice threatened last month to withhold visas from all Guyanese applicants unless Georgetown took back the deportees within 30 days. The INS falls under the Justice Department.

Subsequent delays by local authorities in providing Guyana passports or emergency travel documents to those awaiting deportation climaxed earlier this month, when the State Department issued a ban on government functionaries, their families and employees from obtaining leave to enter the United States.

The ban’s victims also include a small contingent of journalists planning to cover Guyana-born world champion boxer Andrew Lewis’s defense of his title in the United States next month. Nor has it spared ordinary working people who fear for pending visa applications.

“I wonder what next has to happen in Guyana. Nothing is being done correctly here. After all the problems we have, some people can’t even travel now,” said Rohan Singh, a market vendor waiting to join relatives in New York.

The ban’s implementation has moved President Bharrat Jagdeo to blame local officials for bringing the country into disrepute by failing to avert blacklisting by the United States.

“They messed up, ” Jagdeo told reporters at a news conference summoned to explain the situation. “I was very disappointed that the situation has turned out this way.”

So far, U.S. officials have given Guyana two separate lists of INS inmates facing deportation and believed to be Guyanese. The first had 141 names on it and the second, close to 150. In all, the State Department said, 327 convicts could be sent to Guyana in the next year, a development that has caused some amount of anxiety at home given the fact that many of these have been convicted of violent crimes.

Some senior officials here defended the delays in issuing travel documents to the deportees, saying the government has erred on the side of caution rather than open the country to criminals who might turn out to be nationals of other countries.

Official scepticism about the accuracy of the INS lists stems from a mid-1999 case in which Jamaican national James Dean Collins was mistakenly sent to Guyana after serving time in the United States on charges of drug trafficking. Collins spent almost a year in police detention here before INS agents took him back. While here, he had been a cause celebre for local media.

Cabinet Secretary Roger Luncheon and Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj both have said they want no repetition of the Collins case.

Jagdeo, however, said he would take over control of Guyana’s end of the deportation process in a bid to avert a longer-term U.S. entry ban.

Some officials, who asked not to be named, said they expected the first batch of 33 deportees to arrive within days. The government hopes to persuade Washington to sign a memorandum of understanding that would allow for a gradual inflow of deportees, they added.

The government also has considered enacting special legislation to monitor the movements of returned felons but human rights advocates have voiced strong opposition.

Meanwhile, Canada is monitoring the situation and may follow the U.S. lead.

“It is an option that we are considering, “High Commissioner Serge Marcoux told IPS, referring to the visa restrictions. Some 60 Guyanese nationals await deportation from Canadian jails, Marcoux said.

Canadian authorities took matters into their own hands two years ago, when they circumvented Guyanese objections by chartering a couple of small private jets, delivering seven deportees onto the tarmac at Cheddi Jagan International Airport unannounced, and taking off before officials here even understood what had just happened. Canada’s foreign ministry later apologised for the incident.

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