Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands:

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

GAO-10-671T: Published: May 18, 2010. Publicly Released: May 18, 2010.

Additional Materials:


David B. Gootnick
(202) 512-3000


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

This testimony discusses our work on the status of efforts to establish federal border control in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and implement the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 (CNRA) with regard to foreign workers, visitors, and investors in the CNMI. In May 2008, the United States enacted CNRA, amending the U.S.-CNMI Covenant to establish federal control of CNMI immigration. CNRA contains several CNMI-specific provisions affecting foreign workers and investors during a transition period that began in November 2009 and ends in 2014. In addition, CNRA amends existing U.S. immigration law to establish a joint visa waiver program for the CNMI and Guam by replacing an existing visa waiver program for Guam visitors. During the transition period, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretaries of the Interior, Labor, and State and the U.S. Attorney General, has the responsibility to establish, administer, and enforce a transition program to regulate immigration in the CNMI. CNRA requires that we report on the implementation of federal immigration law in the CNMI. This testimony summarizes findings from our recent report regarding (1) steps that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken to establish federal border control in the CNMI; (2) actions that DHS has taken to implement programs for workers, visitors, and investors; and (3) unresolved operational challenges that DHS has encountered.

DHS and its components have taken a number of steps to secure the border in the CNMI and to implement CNRA-required programs for foreign workers, visitors, and foreign investors. However, the components face certain operational challenges that they have been unable to resolve with the CNMI government. Steps taken to establish border control: DHS and its components have taken the following steps, among others, to establish federal border control in the CNMI. (1) Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Since November 2009, CBP has inspected arriving travelers in Saipan and Rota. (2) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Also since November 2009, ICE has identified individuals who may be in violation of U.S. immigration laws and has begun processing some aliens for removal. (3) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In March 2009, USCIS opened an application support center. For calendar year 2009, USCIS processed 515 CNMI applications for permanent residency and 50 CNMI applications for naturalization or citizenship. (4) DHS. DHS has taken several department-level actions to facilitate implementation of CNRA but has not finalized an interdepartmental agreement regarding implementation of CNRA and has not yet specified its resource requirements for this effort as directed by Congress. Actions taken to implement worker, visitor, and investor programs: DHS has begun to implement CNRA-required programs for foreign workers, visitors, and foreign investors but has not yet finalized key regulations. As a result, certain transition programs remain unavailable. (1) Foreign workers. On October 27, 2009, DHS issued an interim rule to implement a CNMI-only work permit program required by CNRA for foreign workers not otherwise admissible under federal law. However, a November 2009 U.S. District Court ruling, responding to an amended lawsuit by the CNMI government, prohibited implementation of the interim rule, stating that DHS must consider public comments before issuing a final rule. As a result, CNMI-only work permits are not currently available. (2) Visitors. DHS has established the Guam-CNMI visa waiver program. However, the program does not include China and Russia, two countries that provide significant economic benefit to the CNMI. (3) Foreign investors. DHS has proposed a rule to allow a large proportion of investors holding CNMI foreign investor permits to obtain U.S. CNMI-only nonimmigrant treaty investor status during the transition period. DHS plans to issue a final rule in July 2010; until then, the program is not available. Unresolved operational challenges: DHS components and the CNMI government have not yet negotiated solutions to operational challenges regarding access to CNMI airport space, detention facilities, and databases. (1) Airport space. Lacking long-term occupancy agreements and adequate space at CNMI airports, the agency is operating in facilities that do not meet its standards for holding cells and secondary inspections. (2) Detention facilities. Lacking an agreement with the CNMI government regarding detention space, ICE has released a number of aliens with criminal records into the community under orders of supervision and has paid to transport several detainees to Guam and Hawaii. (3) Databases. Lacking direct access to the CNMI's immigration and border control databases, ICE officials have instead directed data requests to a single CNMI point of contact, limiting their ability to quickly verify the status of aliens and potentially compromising the security of ongoing operations.

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