Who is a CNMI permanent resident?


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1871

In our last column published on June 8, we discussed the eligibility requirements and procedures for application for the new CNMI Long Term Resident Status, which became law just over a year ago as Public Law 116-24. Since then, we have received a lot of inquiries, including several that we didn’t anticipate. Specifically, people want to know what is the meaning of “CNMI Permanent Resident.” And they want to know why, after living in the CNMI 20 or 30 years, they aren’t “permanent residents.” After all, they permanently reside here, don’t they?

It all depends what the government means when it uses the words “permanent resident.”

To review, the prerequisite qualifications for CNMI Long Term Resident status are as follows:

You must fall into one of the following six classes:

• Stateless – born in the CNMI between 1/1/74 and 1/9/78;

• IRs of Stateless – spouses and unmarried children under 21;

• CNMI Permanent Resident on November 27, 2009;

• IRs of Permanent Residents – spouses and unmarried children under 21;

• IRs of US Citizens – parent, spouse or child of any age; relationship must have existed on November 27, 2011 and must have continued to the present;

• In-home caregivers – must have had Caregiver Parole on 12/31/18.

If you are not in one of the above classes, you don’t qualify. End of story. If you do fall into one of the above classes, then you also must prove all of the following four conditions:

Lawfully present in the CNMI (including parole or deferred action) on either 12/31/18 or 6/25/19;

Be admissible as an immigrant;

Resided continuously and lawfully in the CNMI from November 28, 2009 through June 25, 2019;

Not a citizen of the Marshalls, the FSM, or Palau.

Most people who qualify to apply for CNMI Long Term Resident status are the parents of US citizen children born on or before November 27, 2011; a few who called us have caregiver parole instead.

But we have also had a lot of calls from foreign nationals living in the CNMI who believe themselves to qualify under the “CNMI Permanent Resident” class because they have been “residents” of the CNMI for many years, usually for decades. These are people who do not have U.S. citizen children or, if they do, the children are too young for the parents to qualify. Unfortunately, we have had to say: “Sorry, no. You don’t qualify” to all of these people.

“Permanent resident” is what lawyers call a term of art. This means that these words, when used in a legal sense, lose their ordinary, everyday meaning, and acquire the meaning that the law gives them. To be considered a permanent resident, it is not enough that you have lived in a place for a long time; you must have qualified for the status under applicable law and then actually acquired it. Put another way, “permanently residing” does not, by itself, make you a “permanent resident.”

Immigration into what is now the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands has a fascinating history. During the time of the Trust Territory, immigration was governed by Trust Territory law. A Trust Territory Permanent Residency law was enacted by the 5th Northern Marianas District Legislature as P.L. 5-11, prior to the establishment of the CNMI. The permanent residency statute provided simple qualifications:

Section 1. The Resident Commissioner may grant permanent residency status to persons who:

1. are not citizens of the Trust territory of the Pacific Is lands; and

2. are of good moral character, as certified by the may or of the municipality I which such persons have resided, provided, however that persons under the age of 16 are presumed to be of good moral character unless otherwise demonstrated; and, provided further, that no person convicted of a felony or crime of moral turpitude shall be deemed to be of good moral character unless such person shall have received a full pardon and had his civil rights restored; and

3. have been actual residents of the Northern Mariana Islands for at least five years prior to application for permanent resident status.

This law continued to be in effect from April 1, 1977, through April 23, 1981, brought into the Commonwealth Code through the CNMI’s initial wholesale adoption of the Trust Territory Code. Persons who acquired permanent resident status under this law, and their immediate relatives, are the only persons considered as CNMI Permanent Residents and are members of the class designated as such by P.L. 116-24, the CNMI Long Term Residents Relief Act.

Adopted effective March 24, 1976 (which we now celebrate as Covenant Day), the Covenant established the political entity known as the CNMI, “under the sovereignty of . . . and . . .in political union with the United States of America.” Control of immigration is indubitably an aspect of sovereignty of a modern nation state. The United States, however, ceded that authority to the CNMI in Section 503(a) of the Covenant. “The immigration and naturalization laws of the United States…presently inapplicable to the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, will not apply to the Northern Mariana Island except in the manner and to the extent made applicable to them by the Congress by law after the termination of the Trusteeship Agreement.”

Section 503 of the Covenant was implemented in 1978 when the 1st Commonwealth Legislature vested the immigration authority of the CNMI in the Office of the Attorney General by enacting P.L. 1-8. This did not address the permanent residency issue, and the Trust Territory law carried over into the new Commonwealth.

On April 23, 1981, in P.L. 2-17, the Second Commonwealth Legislature repealed the CNMI Permanent Residency law in its entirety. No application filed after that date would be processed. There was litigation with respect to the status of those who had applications pending on the repeal date, or who claimed a constitutional right to file applications immediately after P.L. 2-17 passed. The matter was finally resolved by the then District Court NMI Appellate Division, in favor of the pending applicants. Sirilan v. Castro, 1 C.R.1082 (1984).

What motivated the 2nd Commonwealth Legislature to repeal the Permanent Residency law? The justifications eerily foretell President Trump’s current anti-immigration stance. As the Sirilan court summarized it, “The Committee Report to P.L. 2-17 reveals that the Legislature found the continued acceptance of foreign nationals as permanent residents to be ‘politically…undesirable’ and economically and socially unsound as it would burden public services, overly tax financial resources, and restrict opportunities for ‘further development and advancement of the local people.’ In addition, the report stated the view of the legislators that it would be wise to rewrite the old statutes in order to ’streamline‘ Commonwealth immigration policy.” (Sirilan v. Castro at 1098.) Under the Sirilan ruling, the last CNMI Permanent Resident applications were processed in 1985.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1981. Our islands have grown and changed and have become increasingly diverse. Our population was 17,000 in 1980 and close to 54,000 in 2010; during the garment factory years, it was sometimes much higher. The percentage of our foreign-born population has also greatly increased. We are a different society and economy from what we were in 1981 when PL 2-17 repealed the CNMI’s permanent resident statute. We can’t rewrite history, but hopefully we can learn from it. Today, we have a limited but welcome safety net in the CNMI Long Term Residents Relief Act. Congressman Kilili’s follow-on bill, H.R. 560, would further extend CNMI Long Term Resident status to two additional groups whose members may qualify: CW and E2C. HR 560 has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is currently pending in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where it was received in late February.

Here’s the bottom line: “CNMI Permanent Residents” means only those people who obtained that status before the class closed in 1985. “US Permanent Residents” means only people who have obtained green cards under U.S. law. “CNMI Long Term Residents” will mean only those who qualify under P.L. 116-24 (and perhaps H.R. 560, if it ever becomes law), and whose applications are successful.

The information contained in this column is intended as general information only, and not as individual legal advice. Readers should obtain professional legal advice before taking action with respect to their individual situations. Readers may submit questions regarding immigration issues to the authors by email to or . Readers may also e-mail written questions through the Saipan Tribune at

Maya Kara and Bruce Mailman (Special to the Saipan Tribune)

Maya Kara and Bruce Mailman (Special to the Saipan Tribune)

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