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Mariana Islands Bills See New Life

With Tom DeLay out of office and Jack Abramoff in jail, Congress is beginning to move long-stalled legislation to reform the labor and immigration laws of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

A measure of this effort is tucked into the Senate Interior-environment appropriations bill. Inserted by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the provision would set aside $750,000 to conduct population and work force surveys in the Marianas, essentially to build a factual record for figuring out how to address long-standing concerns about immigration and labor abuses in the islands.

In the mid-1990s, Congress began considering legislation that would extend federal labor and immigration laws to the CNMI, in an effort to curb what were alleged to be widespread abuses of foreign workers.

Representatives for the tiny Pacific island chain — which has been a U.S. territory since 1976 — long maintained that abuse of foreign workers was not as prevalent as rights advocates claimed and that imposing federal laws would destroy the burgeoning textile industry in the territory.

The CNMI government paid millions of dollars in lobbying fees to Abramoff and succeeded in derailing legislation to broaden federal control over the territory. DeLay proclaimed his opposition to the bill and said he considered the economy of the territory a model of capitalism that the federal government should not tamper with.

Since Abramoff’s illegal lobbying activities became public, “we went through a long period of nothing … nobody wanted to have conversations about the CNMI,” said Malinda Matson, chief of staff to Pedro Tenorio, the Marianas’ resident representative in Washington, D.C. “After the Abramoff problem became public, we were tainted … they didn’t want to touch us.”

But the 110th Congress has taken up several long-stalled CNMI measures. A Marianas minimum-wage increase was added to the minimum-wage provisions that passed as part of the Iraq War supplemental in May.

The Interior appropriations measure would fund “the population and workforce surveys necessary to quantify and evaluate the degree and prevalence of labor, immigration and law enforcement problems” and require “regular interagency meetings between federal and local immigration, labor and law enforcement officials.”

Akaka also has introduced with several co-sponsors — including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — a stand-alone bill to extend federal immigration laws to the territory and to establish a guest-worker program in the CNMI. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to have a hearing on the bill July 19.

Allen Stayman, a Democratic staffer on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said: “I cannot name a single Member of Congress at this point who would speak against reform legislation. … I am more confident than I have been that we are going to get legislation.”

Stayman said the CNMI economy has been based almost exclusively on textile mills staffed with foreign workers, and the U.S. at this point has very poor data on the population. “The population best estimate is somewhere around 80,000 and fully 45,000 are aliens,” Stayman said. “It’s a very bizarre system — it’s almost like the economy in Kuwait where all of the labor is imported.”

With changes in textile trade preferences worldwide, the Marianas have seen their exclusive advantages dry up, and the economy “is in a nosedive,” Matson said. “Unemployment is off the scale, the government is looking at even reducing essential services.”

Matson said her boss is hoping renewed Congressional interest will spur a “course correction” for the Marianas. Tenorio testified in February that while he does not oppose reforms to CNMI labor and immigration laws, the territory needs some kind of guest worker provisions, a “visa waiver” program for visitors from Russia and China, and other flexibility so as not to simply shut down the economy.

Matt Letourneau, Republican communications director on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said “there is some concern about the overall immigration situation in the CNMI” and whether weak enforcement of immigration rules there is creating security problems for the United States.

“What we’re trying to figure is whether that is really happening or not,” Letourneau said. “Maybe it isn’t such a problem. … Let’s find out who is there, and who is working.”

While the CNMI government terminated its lavish contract with Abramoff and Greenberg Traurig in August 2002, the territorial government has had a contract with Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg since February 2005, and the firm reported $100,000 in lobbying revenues from the territory last year.

Earlier this year, Oldaker, Biden and Belair filed a registration form to lobby on behalf of the CNMI specifically on immigration issues. Oldaker lobbyists did not return calls requesting comment for this story.

According to the CNMI-based Saipan Tribune, “Oldaker, Biden & Belair was hired to block U.S. legislation federalizing the local minimum wage and immigration. It is paid $90,000, plus approved expenses, for a six-month period ending on Monday, July 9, 2007.” The paper quoted a spokesman for the governor as saying the contract was likely to be renewed “for another six months at least.”

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