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Homeland Security defends visa waiver for CNMI-bound Chinese travelers

Updated: Apr 10


   A Chinese tourist and his two-year-old daughter at the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport. Photo courtesy of Marianas Variety


By Mar-Vic Cagurangan


(This article has been updated to include a U.S. senator's comment on DHS's response)

China is deemed a lucrative market for the Northern Marianas, warranting its inclusion in the visa waiver program, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

 

The visa waiver program was created by Public Law 110-229, also known as the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 or CNRA.

 

“The CNRA requires DHS to identify countries from which the CNMI receives a ‘significant economic benefit’ from the number of visitors for pleasure within the year preceding enactment,” said Zephranie Buetow, the department’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs.

 

“The department determined the People’s Republic of China met this economic

threshold in 2009,” Buetow said in response to a letter sent Nov. 30, 2023 by a group of U.S. lawmakers led by Rep. Neal P. Dunn from Florida.

 

Dunn has raised concerns that the policy has made the islands “vulnerable to plethora of problems including drug trafficking, illegal immigration and organized crime.”


Local law enforcers have also raised concerns about Chinese nationals sneaking into Guam by boat trips.

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“The CNMI is the only United States territory into which Chinese nationals can enter without a visa,” Dunn said. “While specific details of this management remain hidden from the public, it habeen reported that individualmust only have a Chinese passport that is valid for six months after the intended stay, as 

well as bable to prove one's intent to depart from the island within the 14-day window.”

 

Buetow confirmed that under the CNRA, Chinese nationals may travel visa-free to the CNMI for a temporary visit “for business or pleasure for up to 14 days,” but they are not authorized for employment. Their visa-free entry privilege does not apply to Guam and other U.S. jurisdictions.

 

“DHS remains vigilant in its screening and vetting duties, which focus on rooting out exploitation of our immigrant and nonimmigrant visa processes,

including by identifying, and where necessary denying entry to, high-risk travelers,” Buetow said.

 

In an interview with Newsweek, Sen. Joni Earnest of Iowa expressed dissatisfaction with the department's response, saying the policy puts national security at risk.


"The Chinese Communist Party has already proven they will stop at nothing to infiltrate the United States, and that threat is increasing every day as Chinese nationals use a visa loophole to gain access to our critical military installations in Guam," Ernst told Newsweek.


"Instead of listening to my calls to close this gap and prevent further CCP espionage, the Biden administration dragged their feet for four months and now is defending an outdated policy," she said.


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U.S. lawmakers have sought the abolition of the CNMI-only visa waivers for Chinese travelers.

 

In response, DHS established the CNMI Economic Vitality & Security Travel Authorization Program or EVS-TAP, that would allow Customs and Border Protection to pre-screen Chinese travelers and submit travel authorization before embarking on their travels.


Washington's ambiguous relationship with Beijing makes China a difficult market for the CNMI.


The Department of Commerce welcomed China's move to reinstate the U.S.'s approved destination status, a scheme that allows guided tours for Chinese travelers. However, the power competition between the two nations creates geopolitical tensions that take their toll on tourism.


CNMI Gov. Arnold Palacios last year issued a policy statement, declaring that his administration would “pivot away” from the industry’s reliance on the Chinese market and divert focus to the military sector.

 

The CNMI’s business community, however, is seeking to retain the Chinese market.



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