At the stroke of midnight on Nov. 28, 2009, the CNMI lost control of its immigration to the federal government, creating another chapter in the islands' 34-year relationship with the United States.
The CNMI is the second to the last U.S. territory to control its own immigration. American Samoa still has jurisdiction over its borders.
Federal control came about as a result of Public Law 110-229 or the Consolidated Natural Resources Act signed by President Bush on May 8, 2008.
The so-called federalization means the CNMI is now subject to the same immigration laws as all U.S. states and territories, like its neighbor Guam.
Federalization happened more than three weeks after the CNMI marked the 23rd year on Nov. 4 since former U.S. President Ronald Regan proclaimed that the U.S. trusteeship agreement under the United Nations was no longer applicable to the CNMI and, under the terms of the Covenant, declared qualified residents U.S. citizens.
Federal takeover was originally set for June 1 but on March 31, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano delayed the transition to full implementation of U.S. immigration laws in the CNMI by 180 days-the maximum allowed by law.
This brought the new implementation date to Nov. 28, 2009.
When that day came, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection-one of the agencies under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security-took over immigration checks at the Saipan and Rota international airports. The first passengers to be to be processed by CBP officers at 1:11am were those on a Northwest Airlines flight from Japan.
CBP officers from all parts of the U.S. manned the 14 immigration booths at the Saipan airport on that historic day. Federal officials also made their presence on the islands felt before, during and after the official federal takeover.
But for the more than 30 CNMI immigration officers, federalization meant either losing their jobs or being transferred to other local agencies such as the Department of Corrections or the Division of Customs Service.
Federalization would have prevented Chinese and Russian tourists from entering the CNMI without a U.S. visa, but DHS' Napolitano used her parole authority on Oct. 21 to allow a visa-free entry of these tourists until DHS issues a final rule on the joint Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program.
However, diplomatic and immigration concerns led to the suspension of charter flights from China since Nov. 28, and resumed only on Dec. 18.
Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, who sued the U.S. government over federalization, was not able to persuade a federal court judge that the so-called federalization violates the Covenant between the United States and the CNMI.
But Fitial didn't lose everything in his federalization lawsuit. Judge Paul Friedman issued on Nov. 25 a preliminary injunction preventing DHS from implementing its interim final rule on the CNMI transitional worker program until the public is given enough time to comment on it.
The DHS rule creates a Transitional Worker Visa category, a new nonimmigrant visa classification under the Immigration and Nationality Act using the admission code CW-1 for the principal transitional worker and CW-2 for dependents. “CW” stands for “Commonwealth transitional worker.”
Two weeks later, DHS reopened and extended for another 30 days or up to Jan. 8, 2010 the public comment period for the interim final rule.
While the governor conceded that the CNMI does not have the necessary resources to control its own borders amid the U.S. war against terrorism, he insists that the federal government should back off from controlling the CNMI's labor system.
It was also only on Nov. 28 that DHS started announcing options for nonresidents to be able to exit and re-enter the CNMI using their valid CNMI entry and work permit, by applying for either a parole or advance parole with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.