Covenant Consultation To Include CNMI Visa Waivers

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Current setup ‘choking’ possibility of bigger investments: Inos

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, May 16, 2013) – Governor Eloy S. Inos' letter to President Barack Obama on a proposed Covenant Section 902 consultation will add the Northern Marianas’ push for a permanent U.S. visa waiver for Chinese and Russian tourists to the islands, four years since the 2009 grant of a "discretionary" waiver that is still causing uncertainty among investors and visitors to the Commonwealth.

Chinese and Russian tourists are an emerging lucrative market for the CNMI, whose main market are Japan and Korea.

However, under the current setup, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary can at any time lift the waiver for a U.S. tourist visa to Chinese and Russian tourists, and this poses significant risks to the still delicate tourism industry.

"We'd like to see if we can have some sense of permanence as opposed to just discretionary thing. We don't know if it's going to succeed but we're going to give it a try because it's really choking our ability to get bigger investments here," the governor said in an interview at yesterday's 2013 peace officer memorial ceremony in Susupe.

Russian and Chinese tourists are allowed to enter the CNMI without a U.S. visa for up to 45 days.

In early 2010, then-governor Benigno R. Fitial said he was assured by DHS that the CNMI would have indefinite access to Chinese and Russian tourists "as long as there are no major security incidents involving these visitors."

Birth tourism, however, has become a concern. Pregnant tourists, especially from Asian countries such as China, fly to the CNMI under the visa waiver program, to give birth here and enable these children to obtain automatic U.S. citizenship.

Inos said yesterday he also considers bringing up the needed extension of the federalization transition period beyond Dec. 31, 2014.

Without such extension, the CNMI could lose access to over 12,000 skilled and professional foreign workers.

Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian), in a separate interview yesterday, said a joint resolution supporting the transition extension will be taken up in the House's session next week, to help add weight to the CNMI's request.

"We need to show the federal government we are unified in our position. The governor and the delegate already made it clear they are supporting the five-year extension, and the House leadership feels the same way too," he said.

The governor said the law requires the U.S. Labor secretary to decide on any transition extension but it could also be pushed during 902 talks.

"We're hoping that we should just do it through the administrative regulations but then we want to solidify the issue of the parole situation. It can't just be a very temporary thing. We need to see if we can solidify that because we're out trying to get more tourists here, to get more investments, so there has to be some degree of certainty," he added.

Businesses in the CNMI especially hotels have made additional investments to also cater to Chinese and Russian tourists since the visa waiver program started, but there is still a degree of uncertainty whether the islands would continue to have access to these tourists.

These issues are in addition to the governor's plan of bringing up the planned U.S. military use of Pagan and Tinian in the proposed 902 talks.

There has been a growing opposition to the U.S. Department of Defense's (DoD) planned use of Pagan for live-fire training exercises.

Taking this into consideration, the governor asked DoD to separate into two distinct environmental impact statements the proposed Tinian and Pagan ranges "to prevent the downfall of one because of the other."

Inos reiterated that the CNMI would want to benefit from Pagan's resources even before the military uses it for their training requirements.

He said the CNMI wants to see "what we can do between now and then, especially if by then the whole island would be destroyed, so we want to see what we can do now-not to exploit but to harvest-whatever resources we have out there."

Inos was referring to the long-planned mining of pozzolan and the development of eco-tourism on Pagan.

The governor said he has yet to send the letter to Obama because he is still "trying to refine the issues" to be included in the proposed 902 talks.

"On the military issue, we need to be specific because not all military issues may be negotiated. We got pretty much the Covenant provisions regarding military, defense responsibilities, but it's within that area. Like for example how do we get in and acquire property, stuff like that," he added.

Section 902 of the CNMI's Covenant with the U.S. allows for periodic consultations between the Commonwealth and federal governments "on all matters affecting the relationship between them."

The 37-year-old Covenant establishes the unique relationship between the Northern Marianas and the United States.

Either party can initiate Covenant Section 902 consultations. The U.S. president and the CNMI governor directly appoint representatives to these 902 discussions.

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