Holding area on Tinian questioned • Sen. Murkowski says extending US immigration laws to CNMI defeats repatriation of illegal immigrants

Posted on May 25 1999

Concerned over its implication, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has pledged to look into the federal government’s decision to use Tinian as holding area for close to 500 illegal Chinese immigrants.

This contradicts a plan by President Clinton’s Administration to strip CNMI authority over its labor and immigration standards, noting that the reason for the decision is the absence of federal laws on the island providing an asylum program to undocumented aliens, according to the senator.

“If we extend the immigration laws, as one portion of the Administration wants, we will frustrate the interdiction and repatriation program being pursued by another portion of the Administration,” he said.

Murkowski’s committee, which has oversight of U.S. insular areas, is expected to hear arguments on the use of Tinian as temporary shelter for the illegal immigrants to avoid claims of asylum.

“The asylum requirements are matters of international obligation and federal policy,” Murkowski explained. “In fact, the failure of the Northern Marianas to deal with asylum issues as a matter of local legislation was one of the arguments that the Administration made in support of the extension of federal legislation.”

The senator, who is considered one of CNMI’s strongest allies in the Congress, made the statement last week when he introduced a legislation that will seek full extension of the Immigration and Nationality Act to the Commonwealth.

Island officials, however, expect to highlight this argument when they appear before a committee hearing on the proposal in efforts to thwart Washington’s attempt to takeover CNMI immigration functions.

Although the proposed measure is “more open-minded” than previous legislation, House Speaker Diego T. Benavente said they would try to use this argument to fight off the plan.

“First of all we have a situation here which I hope to be able to prove to them later on that when we start shipping off and repatriating some of the Chinese staying on Tinian that we do have in fact an opportunity to settle this matter unlike the situation on Guam,” he said in an interview yesterday.

At least 480 undocumented aliens who were caught by the Coast Guard trying to enter Guam illegally are awaiting repatriation procedures on Tinian, where federal authorities set up a “tent city” to accommodate these people.

The White House had apparently diverted these illegal immigrants to the Northern Marianas as federal immigration laws do not apply here and that it makes it easier to repatriate the aliens and prevent them from claiming asylum.

While some federal officials have rejected claims by CNMI officials that it is a valid justification to retain immigration control, Benavente said this should weigh when they appeal against the takeover proposal.

“I will maintain that it should be a major consideration in allowing the Commonwealth government to continue control of its borders,” he said.

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