Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.) are urging the Department of Homeland Security to close an apparent loophole allowing some Chinese nationals to enter US territory without a visa.
The two Republicans warned that the carveout could be exploited to permit Chinese spies to infiltrate US military installations on the island of Guam.
Under the policy, certain Chinese nationals can enter the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory some 1,600 miles from the Philippines, without business or tourism visas during a multi-week stretch.
“The Chinese Communist Party has already proven they will stop at nothing to infiltrate and outpace the United States, and I’m working to close loopholes that allow any further espionage,” Ernst said in a statement.
Ernst, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and has long positioned herself as a hardliner on China, penned a letter with Dunn to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday.
“While specific details of this arrangement remain hidden from the public, it has been reported that individuals must only have a Chinese passport that is valid for six months after the intended stay,” they wrote.
A DHS website on the visa waiver program explains that in 2009, then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano used her “discretionary authority” to permit entry of Russian and Chinese nationals who are “visitors for business or pleasure.”
Parole would be granted on a “case-by-case basis,” per the website, and would only permit stays in the Northern Mariana Islands.
The department cited the “significant economic benefit” to the island, which has a population of just over 55,000.
Ernst and Dunn alleged in their letter that US Customs and Border Protection enacted a specific policy in 2019 that allows Chinese nationals to visit the island chain for 14 days without a visa.
“The Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands is the only US territory that does not require a visa for Chinese nationals to enter. Current statute allows Chinese nationals to enter the islands for 14 days visa-free,” Dunn said in a statement.
“Law enforcement does an exceptional job capturing those who come to the islands with ill intent. However, we must implement the requirement of a B-1/B-2 visa to enter the CMNI to successfully deter the Chinese Communist Party’s aggression and transnational repression.”
A top concern for Ernst and Dunn is that the policy could render the US territory island chain vulnerable to a myriad of risks such as organized crime and drug trafficking.
Ernst and Dunn also noted that Chinese citizens have previously been found entering the Northern Mariana Islands capital of Saipan, then coordinating illegal transportation to Guam, which boasts a number of sensitive military sites.
A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Over recent months, the White House has worked to ease strained relations with Beijing.
President Biden met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping earlier this month on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.
Despite describing Xi as a “dictator,” Biden emphasized his desire for managed competition between the two powers.
Top officials, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, have all made trips to China in recent months.
There have been multiple flashpoints in US-China relations this past year, including a spy balloon that floated through US airspace in late January and early February, the discovery of a Chinese spy facility in Cuba, and the hacking of government email accounts by Beijing-linked actors.