The U.S. government says China and Russia cannot be included in the new Guam-CNMI visa waiver program, dashing hopes of continued tourism from the two countries.
According to a semiannual regulatory plan issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security yesterday, visitors from China and Russia “cannot, at this time, seek admission under the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program due to security concerns.”
In a joint statement, the Fitial administration, the Legislature and the Marianas Integrated Immigration Task Force noted that the document, which appears on the federal government's www.regulations.gov website, is an abstract and not the final regulation.
“However, if this is an insight into the regulation, we have reason to be gravely concerned,” the local government and business leaders said. “Unless China and Russia are officially included in the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program-which is what is being considered in these regulations-the CNMI economy will be damaged. Chinese and Russian tourists are of crucial importance to the islands' economy.”
The local officials also took issue with the economic impact that the DHS has indicated in its regulatory plan. They said the China and Russia markets contribute nearly $200 million to the local economy, not the “grossly understated” $6 million that was stated in the DHS document.
The CNMI administration and private sector further note that the abstract “would seem to run completely contrary to the intent of the [new immigration law],” which mandates the U.S. government to apply the statute with minimal adverse affects to the Commonwealth.
The law says, “In recognition of the Commonwealth's unique economic circumstances, history, and geographical location, it is the intent of the Congress that the Commonwealth be given as much flexibility as possible in maintaining existing businesses and other revenue sources, and developing new economic opportunities..”
The DHS, for its part, says the country eligibility requirements set for the Guam-CNMI visa waiver program takes into account the intent of the immigration act and the nation's current border security needs.
Under current local rules, tourists from Russia and China have access to the CNMI without a visa. The DHS' regulatory plan indicates that, despite the significant economic benefits, this policy will have to change when the Guam-CNMI visa waiver program, as provided in the new immigration law, goes into effect in June 2009.
The document states that visitors from Russia and China, as well as other countries not included in either the existing U.S. Visa Waiver Program or the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program, must apply for U.S. visas, which require in-person interviews at U.S. embassies or consulates and higher fees than the CNMI currently assess for its visitor entry permits.