SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Sept. 15) - CNMI Gov. Juan N. Babauta and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior David B. Cohen signed a Memorandum of Agreement that will provide for cooperation between the federal government and the Commonwealth on matters relating to immigration and the prevention of human trafficking.

Most significantly, the CNMI has agreed to develop a procedure through which foreign nationals who are facing removal from the CNMI will be eligible for protection in the CNMI, but not the United States, if they meet certain strict criteria.

All parties stressed that foreign nationals in the CNMI will not have the right to apply for asylum or other protection in the U.S., and will only be eligible for protection in the CNMI if they meet all of the requirements. Additionally, an alien will only have the right to apply for protection in the CNMI if the CNMI government is taking legal action to remove that alien from the Commonwealth.

"People will not be able to walk in off the street and apply for protection," said Babauta. "For an alien to be eligible even to apply, the CNMI will have had to have taken legal action to send that person home. And even if an alien is eligible to apply for protection, the alien will not be eligible to actually receive protection unless the alien can prove that he or she would be persecuted or tortured upon return. A person who only wants to stay here for economic reasons is not eligible for protection, and we will be able to screen those people out."

An alien who clears all of the hurdles to gain protection in the CNMI will have the right to remain in the Northern Marianas, but will not gain the right to enter the United States.

The Memorandum of Agreement also requires the CNMI to take specific steps to combat human trafficking and smuggling, and to work with the United States to prevent such abuses from occurring. The CNMI will be obligated to introduce legislation that would make a wide range of activities including human trafficking, smuggling, and document fraud criminal offenses.

"This is a landmark agreement," said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acting director for the Office of Refugee, Asylum and International Operations, Joseph D. Cuddihy. "It will bring the CNMI into compliance with important international treaties that are designed to protect people from being returned to countries where they be persecuted or tortured. I commend the CNMI for partnering with the U.S. to ensure that important immigration issues are being addressed."

Under the Memorandum of Agreement, the Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs agrees to provide $600,000 over two years to assist the CNMI to develop and implement a procedure whereby eligible aliens facing removal from the CNMI could obtain protection in the CNMI.

The CNMI will use the funds to engage U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services, one of three legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service components now part of the Department of Homeland Security, to provide personnel that will work with the local government to establish the protection procedure and review claims for a two-year period.

"This is an important step to protect the rights of foreign nationals in the CNMI," said Cohen. "I'm pleased with the collaborative and cooperative spirit that the CNMI has shown in this process, which required them to work with a number of agencies. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services took the lead in drafting the agreement, the State Department helped us ensure that the agreement brought us into compliance with our international obligations, the Department of Justice provided crucial input, and my office is pleased to be providing the funding."

September 15, 2003

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