Am. Samoa Governor Pushes For Immigration Policy Changes
By Fili Sagapolutele
PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Jan. 16, 2013) – Attorney General-appointee Afoa L.S. Lutu has been asked by American Samoa Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga to redefine all immigration policies, including the immigration bond, and put a halt to violation of local and federal laws dealing with "human rights" and "human trafficking."
Additionally, he has been asked to develop a policy to govern and monitor the implementation of an amnesty program for undocumented foreigners residing in American Samoa.
Immigration was among the many issues on the governor’s agenda during his State of the Territory Address on Monday before a joint Fono session, where lawmakers learned for the first time, a hint of the ASGfinancial situation owing more than $44 million.
Lolo says immigration is one of the issues of concern to his administration because of possible violation of immigration laws. He says one issue of violation, which deals with both federal and local laws, is human rights and human trafficking. He said the attorney general has been asked to review current laws on a wide range of immigration issues.
Additionally, the attorney general has been instructed to redefine all immigration policies, not only to streamline the process, but also "to stop immediately all illegal practices which are severely diluting the composition of our population with the majority comprised of undocumented immigrants."
The attorney general has also been instructed to revisit the "corporate sponsor" provision of the law "because it has been blatantly abused," he said. "This loophole must be eliminated."
"Requests from the private sector will be addressed on a case by case basis to ensure that our economic development progress is not hampered," he said.
The governor is looking at implementing an amnesty program for undocumented foreigners and has asked the attorney general to develop policies and procedures to govern and monitor the implementation of the "Amnesty Initiative."
The proposed program will provide a window of six months for all undocumented immigrants living illegally in the territory to get their immigration papers in order or risk being deported after the expiration of the Amnesty Period.
"It is not determined at this time if the initiative will be available to all undocumented immigrants, or only to Samoa residents because of cultural ties and kinship," he said.
Such an amnesty program is not new as the first time it was implemented was when the late Gov. Tauese P.F. Sunia took office for his first term in January 1997, following a promise during campaign season.
In that amnesty program, which became effective the early part of January, a three month amnesty, or grace period was given to all unregistered foreigners in the territory to step forward and correct their immigration status without fear of being deported.
However, by November of the same year, the program was shut down, per order of the High Court, following a lawsuit by then Immigration Board chairman Tuilefano Vaela’a, who argued that the all immigration amnesty applications should be submitted to the Immigration Board and not the Governor’s Office, Attorney General or Immigration Office.
The court ruled that the Governor’s power to grant a pardon or amnesty applies only after a criminal conviction. Additionally, the amnesty program "was not authorized, even though it must be, by the Legislature of American Samoa."
Lolo told lawmakers that the immigration bond is a big issue of concern with the administration, noting that there are about 35,000 to 40,000 immigrants living in the territory but the bond account balance is not even close to $3 million.
He said the bond system needs a full review with a new bond system to be established, ensuring safe custody of bonds and prompt refunding of same when the purpose for which the bond was required has lapsed.
During former Gov. Togiola Tulafono’s tenure, one of the constant issues raised by callers on his weekly radio program concerned the long delay in getting their bonds refunded and some of them complained that although they came up with the money for the bond, it ended up in the hands of their sponsors. Some callers claimed to have waited for more than two years and still no reply.
Off-island independent auditors have noted with concern in past audit reports of not being able to audit the immigration bond account. For example, R.C. Holsinger Associates, the independent audit firm who conducted the fiscal year 2010 audit for ASG, said in its audit report that: "We were unable to obtain and verify support of the immigration bond deposits that are received and recorded by the Territory’s Attorney General."
Togiola established by policy in the summer of 2009, the Internal Audit Office of ASG and its first assignment was to conduct a full review and audit of the immigration bond account. The past administration had promised the Fono a copy of the report, but nothing was ever presented when the last Legislative session ended in the first week of October.
Lolo says a new policy will be issued "prohibiting" all employees of the Immigration Office and Immigration Board members from sponsoring undocumented immigrants.
Additionally, "I have urged the attorney general to identify and aggressively prosecute immigration [office] employees found to have engaged in illegal practices such as receiving kickbacks for issuing documents without going through the established procedures."
(Samoa News points out that an immigration officer was arrested last month for using other immigrant alien’s numbers to produce fake immigration IDs for three Chinese nationals)
In conclusion, Lolo said that upon completing the revisions to immigration laws, required amendments will be sent to the Fono for review and decision.
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