By Bryan Manabat
Saipan--Saying that the CNMI visa waiver has made the islands vulnerable to a plethora of social problems and homeland security concerns, a group of U.S. lawmakers is prompting the Department of Homeland Security to discontinue the discretionary parole program that leaves the CNMI door open to Chinese travelers.
The lawmakers said the lenient immigration policy has opened the floodgates for all sorts of problems in the commonwealth, including drug trafficking, illegal immigration, organized crime and, possibly, espionage.
"It is imperative we deter Chinese Communist Party aggression, espionage and transnational repression," the U.S. lawmakers said in a letter addressed to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
In 2019, DHS authorized a tourism tool to help CNMI's ailing economy after a Covenant 902 consultation talks resulting in a DHS discretionary parole program for the CNMI only. The discretionary parole program allows Chinese tourists to visit the CNMI for 14 days without having to obtain a non-immigrant visa.
The letter dated Nov. 30 was signed by four U.S. senators and 28 House members, including Guam Del. James Moylan and American Samoa Rep. Amata Coleman Radewagen.
Under the U.S. immigration law, foreign citizens are required to obtain either a non-immigrant visa for a temporary stay or an immigrant visa for permanent residence.
Visitor visas are non-immigrant visas for persons who want to enter the United States temporarily for business (visa category B1), for tourism (visa category B-2), or a combination of both purposes (B1/B2).
Currently, certain Chinese nationals are not required to obtain a B1/B2 visa to visit the CNMI—even though the islands are a United States territory.
The CNMI is the only U.S. territory, where Chinese nationals can enter without a visa.
Before the pandemic, China was one of the top source markets for the CNMI.
In 2019, there were 185,536 arrivals from China making it the second largest CNMI tourism market next to South Korea. This figure dropped to 18,550 in 2020; 12 in 2021; and 186 in 2022.
In August, the China National Tourism Administration reinstated the Northern Marianas on its approved destination status list, allowing package tours and charter flights to the destination once again.
"Under the current requirements, a Chinese national must meet extremely low standards to be granted entry into the CNMI from China," the U.S. lawmakers said in the letter.
"While specific details of this arrangement remain hidden from the public, it has been reported that individuals must only have a Chinese passport that is valid for six months after the intended stay, as well as be able to prove one’s intent to depart from the island within the 14-day window,” the letter stated.
The U.S. lawmakers urged the DHS secretary to implement the B1/B2 visa requirement for Chinese traveling to the CNMI.
While the visa-free policy applies only in the CNMI, circumstances indicated that Chinese travelers manage to find their way into the neighboring U.S. territory.
"Chinese citizens were caught entering Saipan and then using messaging apps to coordinate illegal jobs and illegal boat rides to Guam, home to highly strategic U.S. military installations," the lawmakers said.
"Moreover just last month, the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted a case in which two Chinese nationals using the United States Postal Service for the distribution of methamphetamine in CNMI were sentenced to prison," they added.
"Just this year, the Guam Department of Labor sanctioned four companies in Guam found to be using illegal labor from China," the lawmakers said.
The U.S. lawmakers encouraged the DHS to revoke the visa-free policy and apply the visa requirements equally across territories.
The U.S. lawmakers told the DHS secretary that a policy change would put the CNMI in line with a basic requirement enforced throughout the rest of the nation.