Saturday, May 03, 2008

Immigration Flexibility for the CNMI

The Saipan Tribune, Sunday, May 04, 2008
GAO: Flexibility in immigration will be given NMI
By Rianne Pangelinan-Brown

The Government Accountability Office has issued its report on the pending legislation that would apply U.S. immigration laws to the CNMI with a transition period.

According to the GAO study, the pending legislation applies U.S. immigration law to the CNMI and provides federal agencies some flexibility on preserving the CNMI's access to workers, tourists, and foreign investors as it transitions to a federal system.

“During the transition period, foreign workers may be admitted to the CNMI through exemptions from caps that restrict the number of U.S. visas for nonimmigrant workers. Workers not otherwise eligible under federal law may be admitted through a CNMI-only permit program, which may be extended indefinitely for up to five years at a time,” the GAO reported.

It said that current workers who do not obtain U.S. immigration status may continue to live and work in the CNMI for a limited time. “During and after the transition period, CNMI employers also can petition for nonimmigrant and employment-based permanent immigration status for workers under the same procedures as other U.S. employers.”

The GAO said that access to foreign workers in low-skill jobs will be limited after the end of the transition period in 2013 or 2014 and after any extensions of the CNMI-only permit program “because the demand for certain U.S. nonimmigrant worker visas recently has exceeded the supply and because no nonimmigrant visas are available for workers in continuous low-skill positions.”

The GAO reported that while fees for the CNMI-only work permit will be determined by federal regulations and are unknown, the current fees for U.S. foreign worker permits that would apply after the end of the transition period and any extensions will be higher than the CNMI’s current foreign worker permit fees.

The report added that the pending legislation establishes a joint visa waiver program by adding the CNMI to an existing Guam visa waiver program.

“The program exempts tourism and business visitors from certain countries to the CNMI and Guam from the standard U.S. visa documentation requirements,” the GAO stated.

Citizens of countries not included in the CNMI-Guam or other U.S. visa waiver programs may apply for U.S. visitor visas, which require in-person applications and higher fees than the CNMI currently assesses. Changes in tourists’ access to the CNMI will depend on the countries included in the CNMI-Guam visa waiver program.

Until the joint program’s implementing regulations are established, GAO cannot determine whether the program will be more or less restrictive than the current CNMI and Guam waiver programs.

The GAO report concluded that after federal immigration law applies, new CNMI foreign investors must meet federal law’s more stringent investment requirements to obtain immigrant investor status, which allows investors to petition for U.S. permanent resident status that is currently unavailable in the CNMI.

“New investors also could apply for nonimmigrant treaty investor status. In addition, the pending legislation allows current CNMI foreign investors to convert to CNMI-only nonimmigrant treaty investors during the transition period,” the report states.

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