Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands:

DHS Should Conclude Negotiations and Finalize Regulations to Implement Federal Immigration Law

GAO-10-553: Published: May 7, 2010. Publicly Released: May 7, 2010.

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David B. Gootnick
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In May 2008, the United States enacted the Consolidated Natural Resources Act (CNRA), amending the United States' Covenant with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) to establish federal control of CNMI immigration in 2009, with several CNMI-specific provisions affecting foreign workers and investors during a transition. CNRA requires that GAO report on implementation of federal immigration law in the CNMI. This report describes the steps federal agencies have taken to (1) secure the border in the CNMI and (2) implement CNRA with regard to workers, visitors, and investors. GAO reviewed federal laws, regulations, and agency documents; met with U.S. and CNMI officials; and observed federal operations in the CNMI.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) components Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have each taken steps to secure the border in the CNMI in accordance with CNRA. From November 28, 2009, to March 1, 2010, CBP processed 103,565 arriving travelers at CNMI airports, and ICE processed 72 aliens for removal proceedings. In calendar year 2009, USCIS processed 515 CNMI applications for permanent U.S. residency and 50 CNMI applications for U.S. naturalization or citizenship. However, the DHS components face operational challenges and have been unable to negotiate solutions with the CNMI government. First, airport space available to CBP does not meet facility standards and CBP has not reached a long-term occupancy agreement with the CNMI. Second, ICE has not come to an agreement with the CNMI for access to detention space and as a result has transferred 3 of 30 aliens--convicted criminals under CNMI or U.S. law--to correctional facilities in Guam and Honolulu. Third, DHS efforts to gain direct access to the CNMI's immigration databases have been unsuccessful, hampering U.S. enforcement operations. DHS has begun to implement work permit and visa programs for foreign workers, visitors, and investors, but key regulations are not final and certain transition programs therefore remain unavailable. A lawsuit filed by the CNMI government challenging some provisions of the CNRA resulted in a court injunction delaying implementation of the CNMI-only transitional worker program until DHS considers public comments and issues a new rule. As a result this program is unavailable to employers as of May 1, 2010. DHS has established the Guam-CNMI visa waiver program. However, DHS did not include China and Russia, two countries that provide significant economic benefit to the CNMI. Currently, DHS allows nationals from these two countries into the CNMI temporarily without a visa under the DHS Secretary's parole authority. DHS is reconsidering whether to include these countries in the Guam-CNMI visa waiver program. Although DHS has proposed rules that apply temporary U.S. nonimmigrant treaty investor status to investors with CNMI foreign investor entry permits, the program is not yet available.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS agreed with our recommendation. In July 2011, we testified that DHS has resolved some these operational challenges since we issued our report. Specifically, in October 2010, DHS concluded negotiations with the CNMI government and both parties signed a long-term lease agreement that includes permission to renovate airport operating space in Saipan and Rota. Also, in April 2011, DHS concluded negotiations with the CNMI government for access to detention space in the CNMI correctional facility. (GAO-11-805T).

    Recommendation: To enable DHS to carry out its statutory obligation to implement federal border control and immigration in the CNMI, the Secretary of Homeland Security should work with the heads of CBP, ICE, and USCIS to establish strategic approaches and time frames for concluding negotiations with the CNMI government to resolve the operational challenges related to access to CNMI airport space, detention facilities, and information about the status of aliens.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security


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