NMI OFFICIALS: NO NEED FOR FEDERAL TAKEOVER

By Ulysses Torres Sabuco

Variety News Staff

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Aug. 29) -CNMI officials say the U.S. government can adequately address national security concerns without extending federal immigration law to the islands.

They were reacting to a report prepared for the U.S. Attorney’s Office which states that the degree of criminal activities in the CNMI and Guam has transformed the Marianas into "high risk security areas."

The report recommended the inclusion of the CNMI under federal immigration jurisdiction.

But Deputy Interior Secretary for Insular Affairs David Cohen, in an interview Friday, noted that local control over immigration remains crucial for the CNMI economy, which is dependent on the entry of cheap alien labor.

"It would be very damaging to the CNMI to lose control over its economic destiny," he said.

Acting Gov. Diego T. Benavente said the administration still believes that there is no need to amend the Covenant’s immigration provision.

He said the creation and establishment of the Department of Homeland Security "would address" any security threats to the U.S. and its insular areas.

Benavente said the CNMI government will continue to oppose any "federal takeover" attempt.

"The recent decision of the federal government on the immigration policy, particularly suspending the transit without visa program, (was) probably prompted (by the report)," Benavente told Variety Wednesday.

Press Secretary Pete A. Callaghan said there is no need to amend the Covenant in order to deter the entry of criminal elements.

He said the CNMI government can "link" its immigration system with federal law enforcement authorities.

The CNMI law enforcement authorities can also get updates of the federal government’s list of wanted individuals, he said.

Self-government

Rota Mayor Benjamin T. Manglona, who served on the local panel that helped draft the Covenant with the U.S. government, said they "labored hard" to achieve "self-government" for the islands.

He said local control of immigration is key to CNMI self-government.

"I would only hope that the United States will find a better way of maintaining our self-government and not taking away what was agreed between the U.S. and the Northern Marianas during the (Covenant) negotiations," Manglona said.

Tinian Mayor Francisco M. Borja is also opposed to ending local control over immigration.

He said if there are concerns regarding the entry of "unwanted elements" involved in illegal drugs, smuggling, gambling, prostitution and money laundering, then the federal government should work with local authorities.

"We just need to beef up all our law enforcement offices and efforts. Our officials have to come together to try to resolve these (concerns)," Borja said. "Taking control of our immigration is not the solution."

The report identified Tinian as a possible haven for money launderers, citing the presence of an "unregulated" casino.

But Borja disputed the findings, saying that the Tinian Casino Gaming Control Commission was created precisely to regulate the operation of the island’s casino.

"If the federal people think there is something going on, they should work closely with the gaming commission to help them...identify those (violations and criminal elements)," Borja said.

He admitted, however, that "he is not sure" how secure the CNMI waters and boarders are from smugglers.

‘Aware’

Cohen, Benavente and Manglona said they are aware of the existence of the risk assessment report.

Cohen said the report was the "view of a person with a different view of a territory."

However, Cohen said, the "main concern" of the Office of the Insular Affairs now is to promote the economic development of the territories.

He said the federal government is aware of the "economic implications" once the U.S. takes control of local immigration.

But with the current fight against global terrorism, "national concerns will govern," he said.

Still, he added, "what the CNMI does with its control of immigration should be decided locally — it is up to them to determine who to let in and how (because) it is very important that the CNMI be able to control its own economic destiny."

He added, "(our) objective should be to address the security concern in a way (that) it enables the CNMI to prosper economically — so if there is a way to accomplish both of them, then (that) should be (the goal)."

Cohen disputed a portion of the report which claims that Washington-level entities have "unwittingly adopted an out of sight, out of mind approach" in dealing with the territories.

Cohen, who is from American Samoa, said President Bush created the Interagency Group of Insular Areas, or IGIA, last May to give more attention to the concerns of the insular areas.

"We are doing our very best to raise the profile of the insular areas in Washington. The creation of (IGIA) has put the territories on the map and I am grateful to the president for doing that," Cohen said.

Benavente said the risk assessment report was only a "recommendation of certain people."

But he said the CNMI should also strengthen its immigration laws.

"We will continue to enforce our own immigration laws and provide the security that is necessary for our islands," Benavente said. "We have the ability and we should maintain our control (on immigration)."

September 1, 2003

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