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U.S. regulators consider visa ‘parole’

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Sept. 17, 2010) – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is examining the possibility of using its parole authority for Chinese and Russian visitors bound for Guam, Assistant Interior Secretary for Insular Affairs Tony Babauta told a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. Thursday.

This DHS parole policy is currently extended only to the CNMI, and there have been concerns that granting Guam the same will be a blow to the CNMI's tourism industry.

Chinese and Russian visitors are emerging tourist markets for the CNMI.

Babauta was one of those who testified on Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo's H.R. 6015.

The bill has two sections. The first one makes technical corrections to the Guam-CNMI visa waiver program.

The second one requires the director of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis to compute the gross domestic product reports for Guam, American Samoa, the CNMI, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Freely Associated States. Bordallo is also the chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife, which held the hearing.

During the hearing, Bordallo asked Babauta as to when DHS will exercise such granting of parole authority for visitors to Guam. She said this is "good news."

She asked whether it would take months or years, to which Babauta said, "I would hope it's not years."

Bordallo said she hopes Babauta will prevail upon DHS that such parole will help Guam.

CNMI Gov. Benigno R. Fitial and Guam Gov. Felix P. Camacho submitted separate testimonies supporting Bordallo's H.R. 6015, specifically the provision on the joint Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program.

Dededo Mayor Melissa B. Savares, who is the president of the Mayors' Council of Guam, also attended the hearing in support of Bordallo's H.R. 6015.

Fitial reiterated the CNMI's frustration with the exclusion of China and Russia from the list of approved countries in the joint Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program.

"As the Subcommittee knows, the Commonwealth and Guam believe that this decision was contrary to the legislative intent of the CNRA [Consolidated Natural Resources Act] and failed to acknowledge the importance of these two countries to the Commonwealth's tourism industry. We are still awaiting further action by DHS with respect to amending the Interim Final Rule, which we were advised several months ago might be made later this year," Fitial said in his 11-page testimony.

He said the CNMI supports Section 2(b) of H.R. 6015 and any other action by the Subcommittee that will encourage or require DHS to include China and Russia on the list of approved countries.

"We certainly believe that, in the absence of such final action, Guam should have the same benefits of the department's parole program as has been in place in the Commonwealth since the effective date of the CNRA on November 28, 2009," Fitial added.

But Fitial said a parole is viewed as a stop-gap measure.

"Although the CNMI welcomed the [DHS] Secretary's October 2009 decision to use its parole authority to admit tourists from China and Russia, it is not a substitute for issuance of final regulations including China and Russia on the approved list of countries for visa waiver," he added.

Guam Gov. Felix P. Camacho said since the enactment of Public Law 110-229 more than two years ago, the challenge of allowing nonimmigrant visas for Chinese tourists to Guam has been frustrating and discouraging.

He said this month, for instance, two charter flights had to be cancelled due to their inability to secure interview appointments with the U.S. Consulate serving Shenyang, China, despite requests for these appointments in advance.

"A fully implemented visa waiver policy would have made these two charters possible as the U.S. Congress had intended when it passed Public Law 110-229," Camacho said.

He said "more disheartening is the current bifurcated system in place" where Chinese and Russian tourists visiting the CNMI are allowed a less onerous visa entry permit than those who wish to visit Guam.

"This policy is clearly at odds with the intent of the U.S. Congress to have a unified immigration and visa waiver policy for the Marianas, and for the region as a whole to have the same and equal access to source markets," he added.

Lamonte J. Beighly, vice chair of the Guam Visitors Bureau, echoed Camacho's concerns.

He said although DHS deemed China and Russia as being of significant economic benefit, the uncertainty surrounding the parole program and its confusing nature for tourists and tourism professionals deters investment and marketing potential.

"In sum, it does not make sense to have one system in the CNMI and another in Guam. While we are grateful to Secretary Napolitano and her colleagues at DHS for extending parole authority to the CNMI in November of last year, we need a regional solution (full Visa Waiver implementation) in order to fully harness the economic opportunity that these source markets present to Guam and the CNMI," he added.

Bordallo's Subcommittee also received testimony from Howard Willens on behalf of Fitial.

She said H.R. 6015 is supported by the visitor's industry in both Guam and the CNMI and by elected officials from both sides of the aisle, including Ranking Member Henry Brown.

"Further, my bill would also ensure that Guam and the other territories and Freely Associated States are provided with gross domestic product data annually by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Our witnesses testified on the importance of this bill on our regional economy and I will continue to work with my colleagues on both of these important issues," she said in a statement.

Fitial's testimony also included a request to the Subcommittee to consider extending the transition period related to the federalization of CNMI immigration from the end of 2014 to the end of 2019, and to reinstate a "cover over" tax provision in the Covenant that the federalization law deleted.

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