2014 Asylum Processing Deadline Looms In CNMI

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Officials seek extended exemption from handling cases

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Nov. 5, 2013) – In less than two months or after Jan. 1, 2014, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands can start accepting asylum applications unless a U.S. Congress bill is enacted amending the same law that placed local immigration under federal control or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) delays implementation of rules.

"But we’re not there yet," Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) told Saipan Tribune in an interview at his office in Susupe yesterday. He was referring to the absence of any bill right now amending Public Law 110-229.

PL 110-229 isolated the CNMI from the rest of the United States with respect to applications for asylum. Section 702(j) of the law expires on Jan. 1, 2014.

"We could find maybe a moving legislation [wherein] we could include the delay for another year of the asylum provision but the asylum provision needs to be germane to the legislation," Sablan said.

That could be an appropriation bill for DHS "but that has not come up yet," he said, because the U.S. is under continuing resolution.

"Number two, DHS may be able to administratively delay this. It’s a possibility. It’s something we could look at," Sablan added.

It’s been seven months since Sablan and Gov. Eloy S. Inos jointly wrote a letter to the Obama administration, asking for an extension of the CNMI’s exemption from accepting asylum applications beyond Jan. 1, 2014, to deter tourists from claiming asylum when they are admitted to the islands under the visa waiver program.

Without anything to delay the exemption, the CNMI has to abide by law.

"I’m not sure if the immigration courts are up to task with this. I’m concerned, too, that they would be overwhelmed. But the law is the law," Sablan said.

The CNMI is concerned that allowing the law’s provision on asylum to apply as scheduled would open the floodgates for asylum seekers coming here as tourists, including under a U.S. visa waiver program that could also potentially derail the parole program for Chinese and Russian tourists, among other things.

An equally serious concern is catching the ire of the Chinese government, which could pull the plug on airlines servicing the China-CNMI route and could hurt the islands’ tourism numbers.

In the past, most applicants for refugee protection and asylum, for example, were from China. They claimed they would be persecuted or killed for political reasons if they are sent back to China.

"It would be a problem with us, serious problems with the Chinese government, not the U.S. government," he added.

This comes at a time when the CNMI has also become a target destination for "birthing tourism," involving mostly pregnant women from China coming here as tourists so they could give birth to automatic U.S. citizen children.

Tourists from China and Russia can stay in the CNMI for up to 45 days without being required to secure a U.S. visa—a DHS program that has helped boost the islands’ tourism numbers.

Even the CNMI Senate and the House of Representatives do not a unified position on the issue of asylum. Lawmakers contacted for comment were not available yesterday, Citizenship Day holiday.

But at least two lawmakers—Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan), a former CNMI immigration director, and Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian), chairman of the House Foreign and Federal Relations Committee—earlier said the asylum exemption for the CNMI should be continued "until such time immigration is under transition."

But Delegate Sablan said yesterday that the asylum exemption and the transition period are separate issues.

The transition period ends on Dec. 31, 2014, unless extended.

Without such extension, the CNMI loses immediate access to some 12,000 skilled and professional foreign workers mostly from Asia.

Sablan said the asylum issue is among those he has raised with the federal government.

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