By Benjamin Flowers
“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,” former Financial Officer of the Immigration and Nationality Department, Teresita Castellanos said this week.
On Wednesday, Castellanos testified before the Senate Special Select Committee tasked with investigating the wrongdoings cited in the Auditor General’s Special Audit report of the Immigration and Nationality Department.
In her prepared speech, she characterized working in the Department as being inside the “belly of the beast,” as she described a fraternity of corrupt public servants, including politicians, who willfully violate the Laws of Belize for their own profit.
Castellanos added that a small group team, including herself and former director of the Department Maria Marin, tried to correct the malpractices; but were met with fierce resistance by the officers who worked there.
Former Senior Immigration Officer, George Reynolds, now a port commander in Independence Village, also testified on Wednesday, answering questions pertaining to eight missing visa foils, which triggered the audit and subsequent public hearings.
Reynolds contested that the accounts contained in the Auditor General’s report were inaccurate, because he never said that the visa foils were “illegally issued.” He added that he would not have certified the visas if he believed the foils were illegally issued. He also contesded several other points in the report during his testimony.
Of note, the Senate requested that former Deputy Mayor of Belize City, Eric Chang, come to testify, but Chang declined. Chang had the option to do so because the Senate Special Select Committee does not have the ability to summon civilians, the way it does public officers.
The Committee wanted Chang’s testimony because he ended up with one of the eight visa foils that went missing from the western border office of the Immigration Department.