This year, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) will be replacing all CNMI laws and regulations that govern the admission and removal of aliens (except for local laws governing asylum protection, which will last through the transition period). As of now, the switchover is slated for June 1 but can be delayed for up to 180 days.
For aliens living in the CNMI solely based on a CNMI immigration permit, such status will end on the switchover date. Enforcement of the INA in the CNMI will be exclusively handled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
In my last post, I used a recently-issued CNMI Immigration public service announcement as a departure point to outline the near-term effects of the switchover on aliens living here. I’ll now flesh out the outline a bit further, again based on the provisions under Pub. L. 110-229, Title VII, Sections 701 and 702.
Prohibition Against Removal from the CNMI
Aliens lawfully present in the CNMI solely on account of their CNMI status will be considered undocumented aliens beginning June 1 because, technically speaking, they have never been properly admitted into the U.S. This would seem a bit strange and unfair, as if the rug were being pulled from under their feet. Congress perhaps felt that way too and so expressly prohibited DHS from deporting them for the time being. In effect, DHS will honor valid CNMI permits for those aliens present here, at least until the permit expires or after 2 years passes from the effective date of the law, whichever happens first. This does not seem like much time but, at the very least, aliens who were legally present prior to the switchover date will not face an immediate threat of deportation. The window of protection may also provide additional time for these aliens to segue to the CNMI-only worker transition program or apply for the usual federal immigration opportunities (e.g., H visas) if they are eligible.
The Necessary Bureaucracy
The law provides for a registration system for aliens who formerly had CNMI status. This bureaucracy has not been set up yet. Presumably, the system will come with its own set of protocols, policies, forms, permits, procedures, etc., that will be used to track alien presence and provide some form of proof of lawful presence.
Segueing to the Segue
We’re all waiting with bated breath for the regulations that will define the transition program, especially with respect to who may qualify as a nonimmigrant worker under the program. Some aspects of the program are spelled out in the law. The transition period lasts through 2014 but may be extended indefinitely by the U.S. Dept. of Labor in increments of up to 5 years. Unlike the CNMI guest worker program, workers under the transition program will not have their status tied to one employer. The program, however, does not provide for admission to the rest of the United States.
The purpose of the program is also clear: to wean the CNMI from its guest worker program in a way that minimizes the inevitable economic disruption. Foreign workers not otherwise eligible for a federal visa or green card are expressly targeted under Pub. L. 110-229 for the transition program.
It does not take much thought to see that the primary candidates to assist in addressing the CNMI’s near-term labor needs are those already legally present here. At the same time, the federalization law is a solid reproach against the CNMI's self-imposed dependence on aliens from developing countries for its labor supply. We will see, hopefully very soon, how DHS will attempt to balance these concerns.