Most Americans don’t know it but in 2008 Congress set up a special visa waiver program that allows Russian tourists to enter Guam, and permits both Chinese and Russian tourists to travel to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). They may enter without a visa, and remain for up to 45 days. This means that these individuals do not undergo the vetting normally required of Russian and Chinese visa applicants.
While Russia and China aren’t formal enemies of the United States, they certainly aren’t allies. America’s general visa waiver program (VWP) is limited to citizens of nations that are American allies and other countries with which the U.S. enjoys positive diplomatic and trade relationships. Examples include France, Italy, and Sweden. It doesn’t include Russia and China and travelers from those countries must obtain a visa before traveling to the mainland United States.
The general VWP has still been subject to criticism because travelers undergo only limited vetting. However, they are at least run through the Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA), a database containing information from U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies that is used to determine whether a traveler poses a serious security threat. Russian and Chinese nationals entering Guam and the CNMI aren’t even subjected to ESTA checks. Yet no one seems to be paying attention to the enormous potential for a security breach that accompanies Guam/CNMI Waiver Program.
According to the Government Accountability Office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has fewer than 50 officers stationed in the Guam/CNMI operational area. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) contingent consists of less than six support center employees. And U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has fewer than 10 enforcement personnel stationed in the area. The U.S. Border Patrol does not appear to have any agents assigned to the region. That means 60 or fewer immigration officials are responsible for securing the border, and conducting immigration enforcement activities, in an area with roughly 250,000 inhabitants, and 250 miles of coastline, that attracts approximately 45,000 Russian and Chinese visitors each year.
It should go without saying that letting un-vetted Russians and Chinese enter U.S. territory is a bad idea. Admitting them to an outlying U.S. territory with limited immigration controls represents a significant threat to our national security and public safety. The dangers presented by Russian and Chinese intelligence agents and criminal organizations are alarming enough. But both Russia and China have significant internal populations of Islamist extremists who would welcome the opportunity to enter the U.S. with minimal scrutiny. (The separatist Uighur population in China. The Chechens and Dagestanis in Russia.)
While CBP monitors flights and maritime traffic headed to the continental U.S. from Guam and the CNMI, the program’s major flaw is that it allows un-vetted nationals from arguably unfriendly states to access American soil, where it becomes immeasurably easier for them to steal U.S. passports, obtain fraudulent immigration documents, or stow away onboard transport headed for the continental U.S. The Trump administration should either add a thorough vetting requirement to this program or begin pressuring Congress to eliminate it altogether. Otherwise, Guam and the CNMI may wind up being a favorite backdoor route into the U.S. for terrorists, criminals and spies.