Monday, October 19, 2009

US Customs executives on operational visit to Saipan

US Customs executives on operational visit to Saipan

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

By Haidee V. Eugenio

Seven top officials of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection will be arriving on Saipan Wednesday night for an “operational visit,” barely five weeks before the Nov. 28 federal takeover of CNMI immigration.

DHS, along with its component agencies, is required to staff and equip six ports of entry in the CNMI by Nov. 28 as required by Public Law 110-229 or the federalization law.

The visiting federal officials are led by CBP Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Field Operations Thomas S. Winkowski, and CBP Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Information Technology Charles Armstrong.

Also visiting are David Morrell, executive director of the Office of Field Operations' Mission Support; Cheryl Peters, program manager of the Office of Field Operations; Richard Vigna, director of Field Operations in San Francisco; Bruce Murley, area port director in Honolulu, Hawaii; and Rocky Miner, port director in Guam.

Issues raised

While on Saipan, the federal team will be meeting with Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, members of the 16th Legislature, and representatives of CNMI agencies, including the Commonwealth Ports Authority, the Division of Immigration, and the CNMI Division of Customs Services.

“I welcome the visit of DHS officials and look forward to learning more about their plans to smoothly transition into federalization,” Gov. Benigno R. Fitial said in a statement.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Senate President Pete P. Reyes (R-Saipan) said among the concerns he will raise with the federal team are the CNMI's continued access to Russian and Chinese tourists without requiring them to secure a U.S. visa, as well as any plan by DHS not to separate families, including non-U.S. citizens who are married to U.S. citizens or Federated States of Micronesia citizens.

House Foreign and Federal Relations Committee chair Rep. Diego T. Benavente (R-Saipan) said he will raise the yet-to-be-issued CNMI-only transitional worker program regulations, and the visa waiver program that excludes Chinese and Russian tourists.

“There are lots of uncertainties and concerns about federalization and we hope these visiting officials will clarify those for us,” Benavente said.

More meetings

DHS is the lead agency to implement the federalization law in the CNMI. In an earlier response to a U.S. legislative inquiry, DHS said it will “fully” staff and fully equip the six ports of entry in the CNMI through Fiscal Year 2011, and not by Nov. 28, 2009.

Press secretary Charles Reyes said the visiting federal officials also plan to meet briefly with CPA and Customs officials, as well as tour the Saipan International Airport, the Port of Saipan, and immigration facilities.

“The DHS officials also plan to meet with federal agency representatives in the CNMI and assess island infrastructure facilities, including potential employee accommodations. Representatives of many of the concerned CNMI agencies will be present at the initial meeting between the visiting officials and Governor Fitial,” he added.

The press secretary also said that representatives from the Office of the Governor discussed this trip with DHS' Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago.

“Over the past week, the Fitial administration has been discussing the agenda for this 'operational visit' of these top CBP officials,” said Reyes.


Fitial, Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan and other CNMI officials support a delay in the implementation of the federalization law in the CNMI, primarily citing DHS' lack of preparations to control CNMI borders on Nov. 28.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano delayed the original implementation date of June 1, 2009 by 180 days, the maximum allowed by law.

In September, DHS provided answers to the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources chaired by Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-WV) on questions posed in May, including data on the department's expected spending of at least $112.4 million to implement the federalization law in the CNMI using a three-phased approach until FY 2011.

DHS had said that since the facilities and infrastructure currently used by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are inadequate to support CBP operations, DHS will be taking a phased approach to implement the standard infrastructure, information technology, and permanent staffing requirements in the CNMI.

“These requirements include ensuring an adequate power supply at CBP facilities, IT circuitry, cabling and equipment, construction of new and improvement of the existing facilities, physical security (both interior and exterior) and access control, standard maintenance and cleaning, firing range access for uniformed CBP officers, standard CBP signage, and adequate supplies of potable water,” DHS said.

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