Saipan — The Torres administration immediately sounded the alarm after receiving reports that the federal government might revoke the existing parole authority for Chinese visitors. The Chinese tourism market has helped the CNMI economy recover after years of economic slow-motion due to the impact of Asian financial crisis and the gradual phaseout of garment factories in the Commonwealth.
Tourism remains the only industry remaining that is contributing to economic growth, employment, and government revenues. Next to Korea, China is now the second largest market in the CNMI with 39 percent of total arrivals and 236,577 tourists from China arriving in 2018. According to data collected by the Marianas Visitors Authority, the average visitor from China spends $758.20 per trip to the CNMI. In 2018, the direct impact of Chinese arrivals amounted to $183.73 million directly provided $31.50 million in government revenue- or 12.2 percent of the government's budgetary resources.
But the parole program has opened the floodgates to immigration abuse. Chinese tourists came to the CNMI either to work or to give birth, prompting the federal government to revisit the CNMI parole for Chinese visitors.
In October last year, CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres wrote President Donald J. Trump and invoked Section 902 of Article IX of the Covenant between the CNMI and the U.S. government. Section 902 provides both governments to meet and consult each other about issues and other concerns that would affect the unique relationship between them. The most recent 902 Talks focused on the Chinese parole authority, which gave its citizens and nationals visa-free travel to the CNMI.
“We worked closely with the CNMI government and our federal partners to strengthen and protect our national security interests while allowing for the CNMI to continue to access economic resources and opportunities,” said Doug Domenech, assistant secretary of the Department of Interior. “Protecting such opportunities is an important component of the Executive Order on Economic Empowerment of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders signed in May by the President.”
Public Law 110-229 or the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, brought significant change in the local immigration system, which has been placed under federal jurisdiction. It became necessary for visitors, not covered by the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program, to obtain visas from the U.S. State Department to be allowed entry and stay either in Guam or the CNMI.
The visa waiver program is available to citizens and nationals of certain countries where they can easily visit Guam or the CNMI even without U.S. visas. China is not part of that visa waiver program. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security later agreed to include the communist country in the list of eligible countries, convinced that the Chinese market would have a significant impact on the CNMI economy.
China’s inclusion, however, was not that easy. DHS had weighed the political and security concerns of giving visa-free travel to its citizens, where they have to introduce additional layers of security measures like electronic travel authorization to screen and approve the visit of potential visitors from the said country. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, a year after the enactment of the CNRA in October 2009, used her discretionary authority to grant parole visa to citizens and nationals of China and Russia to visit the CNMI either for business and pleasure. But they are not allowed to work.
The discovery of Chinese tourists who ended up working as construction laborers at the yet-to-be-finished resort hotel by Imperial Pacific International and the rise of birth tourism in the Commonwealth was the possible threats to the program and could be the reasons why the Trump administration planned to pull the plug on the parole authority granted to visitors from China.
From eight childbirths in 2009, the number increased to 1,034 births between January 2014 and October 2016, according to recent data provided by the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. Local childbirth dropped in the CNMI but birthright citizenship from Chinese mothers visiting the CNMI increased by 175 percent.
A few years ago, more than 1,000 Chinese construction laborers were discovered to have entered the CNMI as tourists and had also exceeded the 45-day period allowed to stay in the Commonwealth. They were hired by contractors and sub-contractors tapped by IPI to finish their multibillion-dollar casino resort investment on Saipan. The Chinese workers held several protests and for months demanded that their overtime pay and other fees promised to them be given by either the contractors and subcontractors that hired them or IPI. Several of these contractors were indicted in the U.S. federal court and are facing charges of unfair labor practices and other human rights violations. The cases are still pending.
Chinese birth tourism also hogged the spotlight where pregnant mothers visit the CNMI just to give birth so that their child gets automatic U.S. citizenship. These mothers leave the CNMI immediately after acquiring their babies’ U.S. passports. The process cost thousands of dollars and involves agents in China and on Saipan who arrange everything for the expectant mother—from transportation, accommodation, food, and the schedule of regular visits to the physician, up to childbirth.
From eight childbirths in 2009, the number increased to 1,034 births between January 2014 and October 2016, according to recent data provided by the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. Local childbirth dropped in the CNMI but birthright citizenship from Chinese mothers visiting the CNMI increased by 175 percent. Even the CBP could not control birth tourism as it is not grounds for inadmissibility since there are no immigration law that prohibits such practice, according to CBP program manager and public affairs liaison Frank Falcon.
Chinese national was also charged two years ago of harboring illegal aliens and unlawfully employing others, and money laundering in connection to allegedly operating an unlicensed business that caters to birth tourism. The business offers trips and other packages for pregnant women to visit the CNMI just to give birth in a U.S. jurisdiction and have their child earn automatic citizenship.
These practices had the 902 panels — the CNMI and federal sides — recommending to reduce the 45-day maximum period of parole to 14 days while also tightening the screening and vetting process for those citizens and nationals entering the Commonwealth. This is part of the modification of the parole program where enhanced security provisions shall also be implemented. DHS will work with the CNMI government for a smooth transition in making sure all security measures are in place.
Creating a CNMI Economic Vitality Travel Authorization Program as a subprogram under the GCVWP is another of the recommendations that both parties agreed on. Either the CNMI or Guam governor may request the DHS to add a country to the program. Once their request is granted, the complex and lengthy process of granting parole authority to certain nationals from countries not under the GCVWP will be initiated to make sure the previous violations will no longer be repeated.
“This final 902 report on discretionary parole policies is the product of positive collaboration between the CNMI and federal partners over the last several months,” CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres said following the submission of the final 902 Consultation Report on Federal Discretionary Parole Policies in July.
“The recommendations in the report reflect a balance of national security interests in the Pacific and our islands' economic viability to grow and develop a greater standard of living for citizens here in the Marianas. "