Northern Mariana Islands officials say Department of Homeland Security is not ready for ‘federalization’

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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said DHS would be ready for the Nov.

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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said DHS would be ready for the Nov. 28 implementation of the federalization law that puts the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) under federal control, but local officials are not convinced that the agency has enough personnel, infrastructure and other resources to effectively control the islands’ borders.

Napolitano, in a Monday meeting in Washington, DC with delegates Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (D-MP) and Madeleine Bordallo (D-Gu), also said the published visa waiver rule will not be changed before the start of federalization.

This means that Chinese and Russian tourists will no longer be allowed to enter the CNMI or Guam without a US visa starting Nov. 28.

But Napolitano did hold out the hope of some “creative solution” to allow Chinese and Russian tourists into the Marianas.

During the same meeting, Napolitano told Sablan and Bordallo that she had no more authority to delay the implementation of Public Law 110-229.

The DHS secretary had already delayed federalization by 180 days, the maximum allowed by law, from June 1 to Nov. 28 this year.

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, who is also in Washington, DC to meet with Napolitano on Tuesday, agrees with Sablan’s assessment of DHS’ readiness.

“The CNMI community is not convinced DHS will be ready enough for the Nov. 28 implementation. DHS will not have a fully staffed and equipped set of entry ports in the CNMI until 2011. The facilities in place on Nov. 28, 2009, will fall far short of the standards met by the typical port of entry in the 50 states,” press secretary Charles Reyes said when asked for comment on the results of Napolitano’s meeting with the delegates.

Fitial, according to acting Gov. Eloy Inos, will be asking for the inclusion of Chinese and Russian tourists in the visa waiver program and, in the alternative, delay the implementation of P.L. 110-229.

Congressional act
Reyes, along with CNMI House Foreign and Federal Relations Committee chair Rep. Diego Benavente (R-Saipan) said the law does not give Napolitano authority to further delay CNMI federalization but this can still be accomplished through an act of Congress.

“I am still hopeful that Kilili or someone else in Congress will introduce a bill delaying federalization,” Benavente said in an interview.

Benavente asked his colleagues in the House to support Sablan’s call for a delay in the implementation of P.L. 110-229, saying DHS is not prepared to secure the CNMI’s borders and the absence of the CNMI-only transitional worker program.

Time ticks away for a congressional bill to be introduced, passed by the U.S. House and Senate, and signed into law by President Obama.

Sablan and Bordallo, the chairwoman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife, expressed appreciation to Napolitano for taking the time to have a meeting specifically on the implementation of P.L. 110-229.

Sablan also thanked Bordallo and U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Rep. Nick Rahall II (D-WV) for arranging the meeting with Napolitano.

“But I do not think we are any farther along with the department. Secretary Napolitano said she ‘gets it’ that losing Russian and Chinese tourists will be a significant blow to the CNMI economy. I told her that losing Chinese tourists is 100 percent of Tinian’s economy and will mean an end to the inter-island ferry that Tinian people depend on,” Sablan said in a statement issued yesterday.

‘Only 68 days left’
During Monday’s meeting, Napolitano told Sablan and Bordallo that DHS would be ready to stand up the borders on Nov. 28.

“I told her, respectfully, I disagree,” said Sablan.

Sablan provided Napolitano with a letter that reiterated many of his concerns about P.L. 110-229’s implementation, including DHS’ continued silence on the rights of CNMI permanent residents and of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens to come and go from the Commonwealth.

Sablan also expressed concern about DHS’ operational readiness.

“DHS lacks sufficient funding. They have no finalized arrangement for space at the ports. There does not appear to be any equipment installed or communications lines. No Customs and Border Patrol personnel are present. And there are only 68 days until Nov. 28,” Sablan said.

Sablan also told Napolitano that the recently issued E-2 CNMI investor regulations were praiseworthy.

“The E-2 regulations will require that all present investors demonstrate that they have legitimate businesses in the Northern Mariana Islands. I also find it interesting that these investor regulations will even waive fees for investors. This is what we need to do for other people, IRs and permanent residents who also have made a long-term commitment to the Northern Mariana Islands and cannot easily afford the fees for US visas,” he said.

But Reyes said the investor regulations are more restrictive. He said the Fitial administration is concerned that the federal government is essentially forcing a small, economically depressed and vulnerable Pacific island economy to meet the standards of the mainland United States economy, the world’s largest economy.

“This is not reasonable or realistic. The CNMI must not be forced to bear a burden it cannot bear without devastating economic consequences. The mainland US economy, with its huge population, can afford its federal minimum wage rate and immigration restrictions and regulations. Our situation is dramatically different, yet we are being forced to abide by the same standards, regulatory burdens and conditions,” he said.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.