Friday, October 23, 2009

US Customs poised to control NMI borders

US Customs poised to control NMI borders

Full access to airport facilities sought for up to 53 officers

By Haidee V. Eugenio

Friday, October 23, 2009

Key officials of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection led by Assistant Commissioner for Field Operations Thomas S. Winkowski personally told Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, lawmakers, and other local officials yesterday that CBP is “fully ready” to secure CNMI borders by Nov. 28 as required by the federalization law.

“From an operational standpoint, we're ready,” Winkowski told House Speaker Arnold I. Palacios (R-Saipan), Senate President Pete P. Reyes (R-Saipan) and other members of the 16th Legislature on Capital Hill yesterday morning.

In their “operational readiness visit,” the federal team sought “full access” to the immigration facilities at the Saipan and Rota airports ahead of the Nov. 28 federalization to be able to install equipment and prepare for the takeover of border control.

Fitial gave CBP access to the facility, which the officials visited yesterday afternoon, said Winkowski.

Press secretary Charles Reyes confirmed that Fitial assured the federal officials that they would get the necessary access to the airports over the next several weeks to do their job.

“The federal officials agreed that they would make every effort not to interfere with the Commonwealth's enforcement of its immigration laws through Nov. 27,” Reyes said in a statement.

Winkowski said the team has had “productive meetings” with local officials.

“This is an operational readiness visit. I want to be sure that come Nov. 28, we're going to be up and running and you can't do that by sitting in Washington, D.C. You have to come out here and look at the facility, have meetings that we have today with the Legislature, with the governor, and work through any type of issues,” he told reporters.

Up to 53 CBP personnel

Winkowski said between 45 and 53 CBP personnel will be temporarily assigned to the CNMI, primarily at the Saipan International Airport, to screen some 400,000 passengers a year. Others will also be detailed at the Rota airport.

He said qualified CBP personnel from Guam and other U.S. states will be temporarily stationed until permanent hires are in place.

“I'm estimating it will take a year to eliminate temporary personnel,” Winkowski told lawmakers.

Jerry Aevermann, the current assistant port director for CBP Guam, has been named CBP interim port director for the CNMI.

Winkowski said a working group, to be led by Aevermann, is being formed to ensure a smooth transition to federal immigration control.

Besides Winkowski and Aevermann, seven other CBP officials from Washington, D.C. and Guam are visiting the CNMI.

They include CBP Assistant Commissioner for Information Technology Charles Armstrong; 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; Rocky Miner, port director in Guam; and Fraim Leon Guerrero of CBP Guam.

The team visited Guam before coming to Saipan Wednesday night. The officials leave Saipan today.

Rep. Rosemond Santos (R-Saipan) and other lawmakers wanted assurance from the federal officials that the current CNMI immigration personnel will be absorbed by CBP.

Winkowski said consideration is being given, but said qualification requirements will still need to be followed. He added that CBP will issue other job announcements for needed positions.

Immigration inspection

In answering questions from Rep. Ray N. Yumul (R-Saipan), the visiting federal officials said by Nov. 28, those who have already undergone immigration screening on Guam will not be screened again when they enter Saipan and vice versa.

However, those boarding on Saipan or Guam to other destinations will still undergo screening when they fly to Hawaii and other U.S. states and territories.

The CBP officials also said that travels between Saipan, Tinian and Rota will not need immigration screening.

Rep. Justo Quitugua (D-Saipan) and Rep. Diego Benavente (R-Saipan) asked whether nonresident workers can freely exit and enter the CNMI throughout the transition period starting on Nov. 28 without having to secure a U.S. visa.

CBP officials said this is still being worked on by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

CBP and the USCIS are among the component units of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is the lead agency implementing Public Law 110-229 (the Consolidated Natural Resources Act) in the CNMI. DHS is required to staff and equip six ports of entry in the CNMI by Nov. 28.

Winkowski said it's only a happenstance that they're in the CNMI when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced she will be exercising her parole authority to allow Chinese and Russian tourists to enter the CNMI without a U.S. visa even when federalization begins Nov. 28. (See main story)

Rep. Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan) asked CBP to conduct public outreach on the agency's activities and policies, to which Winkowski said this is also being worked on.

Winkwoski, when asked about human trafficking and drug smuggling concerns, said there will be investigators that work for DHS to address these issues.

The CBP officials met not only with Fitial yesterday, but also with officials of the Commonwealth Ports Authority, the Office of the Attorney General, the CNMI Division of Customs, the CNMI Division of Immigration, and the Department of Labor.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (D-MP), in a statement, said he has “been assured that all the necessary equipment to do the pre-screening and monitor visitor exits will be in place by Nov. 28.”

“I have been very concerned about the department's operational readiness, but I'm beginning to see some forward motion. I also think that we have to be sure that this capacity is also present for the Rota and Tinian tourist markets. This isn't just about Saipan,” said Sablan.

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