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Obama could bring change to homeland security issues

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 19, 2009) – The new Guam-CNMI visa waiver program is not closing the door on the Russian and Chinese tourism markets, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official told more than 100 people during an information session yesterday at American Memorial Park.

New interim federal regulations do not include China and Russia among the countries included in the joint waiver program that will go into effect June 1, when federal immigration law will begin to apply to the CNMI under the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008. There is a possibility the law's implementation date could be pushed back up to 180 days.

The new regulations are the first step in the process, said Alex Hartman, an immigration policy adviser at DHS.

"It's leaving the door open, which I think does provide some flexibility. I know it's not as open as the door is now, but it's not a done process. There is opportunity for change in the future."

The regulations state that, although DHS realizes the economic impact of China and Russia to tourism in the CNMI, the two countries will not be included in the program because of political, security, and law enforcement concerns. Some of the concerns hindering the inclusion of Russian and Chinese tourists into the program include high nonimmigrant visa refusal rates and concerns with repatriation of citizens to their home country.

The security concerns could be addressed in the next 12 to 18 months, at which point DHS would determine if the two groups would be eligible for the program.

Hartman noted that when he returns to Washington D.C. next week, a new administration, including a new Secretary of Homeland Security, will assume office. This could impact how fast the new security measures could be implemented, he added.

Also, for the next 60 days people can submit comments about the new regulations, which will be taken into consideration if amendments are made, he said.

Two considerations

Several audience members made repeated reference to the impact the loss of the Russian and Chinese tourism markets would have on the CNMI's economy.

Hartman said there were two considerations used when determining a country's eligibility for the visa-waiver program: economic benefit to the Commonwealth and security concerns. Although Chinese and Russian tourists were found to provide economic benefit, the security concerns outweighed those benefits.

The grouping together of Guam and the CNMI into one program was also a concern for some in the audience because, they said, it would give no competitive advantage to the CNMI over Guam.

"The way that Congress passed the law and it was signed by the president, it created one program. DHS did just that- it made one program. I don't think we have much flexibility there. I think the benefit there intended by Congress is to allow for longer periods of stay to travel between the two sets of islands and spend more money."

Tourists from the included countries will be allowed to stay for up to 45 days.


Commerce Secretary Michael Ada questioned what sort of timetable or prompt would be used by DHS to reconsider the inclusion of Russia and China in the program.

"If it's left as vague as it in your presentation, there will be nothing in place to prompt DHS to say we now need to revisit," Ada said.

Hartman agreed that there is no specific timeline but the issue would not fall on deaf ears.

"It is not an issue that will fall off the radar," he said, adding that DHS is cognizant of the economic impact and will communicate as much to the new administration.

The Guam-CNMI visa-waiver program will allow citizens of the following countries to enter Guam and the CNMI without a visa: Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, United Kingdom, and Hong Kong.


Also, officials from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, who handle immigration benefits, were on island the last two days to meet with local groups and officials.

Sometime between March 1 and June 1, USCIS will open an application support center on Saipan, allowing people the ability to get fingerprinted on island as opposed to traveling to Guam. An information officer will also be a part of the support center to help those who might have questions about their status or benefits.

Saipan Tribune


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