January 23, 2009

Visa Waiver Program Not Affected By Federal Regs Freeze

Within hours of his inauguration Tuesday, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, issued a memo halting all pending federal regulations until they could be reviewed and approved by newly appointed or designated department or agency heads.

But because the interim final rule for the visa waiver program was published in the Federal Register on Friday-before Obama took office-the regulations will not be impacted, according to Alex Hartman, an immigration policy adviser at the Department of Homeland Security. The freeze impacts those regulations that had not yet been published in the Register.

Although the visa waiver regulations are still in the comment period and will not go into effect until June 1, they do not fall under the designation of new, pending or proposed because they were published, CNMI Rep. Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan's Office said yesterday. Sablan had spoken with DHS officials to clarify the issue.

The 60-day comment period for the interim final rule is still ongoing. At the end of the period DHS will either revise the final rule or confirm the interim final rule.

Freezing pending regulations is a typical tactic by incoming presidents, federal officials said, because it gives them time to review regulations that might have been fast-tracked by the previous president.

The CNMI-Guam visa waiver program was one of many regulations published in the last few weeks of President George W. Bush's presidency. Under the regulations, citizens of the following countries will be allowed entry into Guam or the CNMI without a visa, effective June 1: Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, United Kingdom and Hong Kong. Citing security concerns, DHS left China and Russia off the list, a move that has local government officials, business and tourism leaders, and community members worried about the economic impact to the Commonwealth.

Other departments within DHS do not seem to be impacted by the freeze either.

An information officer for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles immigration services and benefits such as work permits, green cards and citizenship, said there were no regulations in the pipeline that would fall under the freeze. Any future regulations will proceed under the normal process with DHS' new secretary, Janet Napolitano, who was one of several appointees confirmed by the U.S. Senate since Obama's inauguration. Others confirmed include Ken Salazer, secretary of the Interior, which oversees the insular areas, and Hillary Clinton as secretary of State.

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