Federalizing Customs, Immigration Could Help Am. Samoa: Senator

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Territory could be made official port of entry into US

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Nov. 21, 2015) – Sen. Galeai Tu’ufuli believes federalization of the local immigration and customs offices would improve government service and could also result in the US government making American Samoa a official port of entry to the United States.

American Samoa is the only US jurisdiction that controls its own borders — both for Immigration and Customs, but recent problems surrounding the immigration office have prompted some people in the community to think it might be wise if the federal government took over immigration for the territory.

Some recent problems that have surfaced about immigration come from the judicial branch where a citizen of Samoa was barred from entering the territory for a certain number of years as part of his sentence for rape, but instead the man traveled to Pago Pago a few times without being detected by immigration.

And there is the issue of immigration files that the court wanted to see but the files could not be located. Further, there is the case of the Filipino woman, who accused the Chief Immigration Officer of making sexual advances towards her at a hotel in Apia, and her name was on the list of people for the Amnesty Program.

During a recent news conference, Galeai pointed to these problems saying, "I don’t know why the Immigration Office is inefficient."

While he believes federalization of local immigration is a good idea, it "would be the last option." However, he added, "For years we have not been able to steer this immigration office to a point whereby they are providing the services that the people of American Samoa need in the most efficient and effective manner. "

"Whereas if the office comes under federal jurisdiction, the management of the Immigration Office would be different. Criteria of the people who work there would be scrutinized by the federal government, whose management team would come down here to review the office’s performance," Galeai pointed out.

"And federalization of this office would raise the level of employees in terms of them providing good service to the public. It will also keep people honest," he said, adding that those who would be employed at a federal immigration office would have to answer to the US Justice Department and the US Homeland Security Department.

Additionally, the local immigration staff would be federal employees, he said, and noted that the Customs Office could also come under federal jurisdiction.

"Customs is the only major source of revenue that we can rely on for future revenues for this government," said Galeai, who added that there was a US Customs officer on island not too long ago and that official said, "Your port is a gold mine if Customs people are doing their job right."

When asked if federalization of these two offices would be seen as American Samoa going backwards, unable to do its own work, Galeai said, "No. I see it as we continue to be part of the United States family."

He did acknowledge that if local immigration does come under federal jurisdiction, American Samoa and the federal government must also look into a way to make it easy "for our families in Samoa to travel back and forth to the territory" without federal hassle.

BACKGROUND

In its 2014-2017 Economic Development Implementation Plan (EDIP), an ASG task force recommended exploring economic benefits of the territory as a US port of entry into the United States, saying that American Samoa may benefit from the creation of more local federal jobs and rid itself of the high costs of managing its own immigration and customs by becoming a U.S. Port of Entry into the US. Its immigration and customs costs would be assumed by the USDHS.

While Fono opposition to such an idea should be anticipated, the EDIP — released early this year — suggested a congressional study to determine the benefits, if any, for American Samoa’s future generation.

In 2010, the US Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress, released a 52-page report following a review of the immigration and customs offices in the territory. The report said American Samoa and U.S. law enforcement officials are concerned that American Samoa Customs officials have accepted bribes for improperly inspecting containers, which could result in lost tax revenues.

Regarding immigration, the principal concern for American Samoa is that current enforcement practices of immigration laws have led to the potential for alien exploitation and human trafficking, and overstays by foreigners, according to the GAO report, which was the result of a request in 2009 from then Congressman Faleomavaega and US House Committee on Natural Resources that has oversight jurisdiction of the insular areas.

At the time of the GAO study and release of the report, American Samoa’s anti-human trafficking law was not yet in place. It was enacted last year.

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