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Northern Mariana Islands Conflicted on Bill

Correction Appended

When the Northern Mariana Islands Immigration, Security and Labor Act was reported out of the House Natural Resources Committee on a voice vote earlier this month, not a single “nay” vote was raised in opposition.

Committee members — who include four nonvoting delegates representing U.S. territories — were especially pleased with the provision giving the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands its own delegate for the first time.

CNMI residents elect a resident representative to represent them in Washington, but he has no official status in Congress. H.R. 3079 would change that, elevating the position to delegate status. Like the delegates from Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, the new CNMI delegate would have a vote only in committee, not on the House floor.

The commonwealth’s resident representative — who is also the CNMI’s former lieutenant governor — is Pedro A. Tenorio. A strong supporter of the bill, he was smiling broadly as he walked out of the committee room following the Nov. 7 vote.

“I’m very pleased with it,” he said. “It addressed everything we asked for.”

But the bill has a big catch — it would also federalize the CNMI’s immigration provisions — a controversial proposal that reverberates all the way to Saipan, the largest of the Commonwealth’s 15 islands and some 8,000 miles from Washington.

The commonwealth’s governor, Benigno Fitial, remains firmly opposed to the bill and has hired two former Bush political operatives — ’04 Bush/Cheney national spokesman Terry Holt and former White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy — to wage a media campaign to defeat it in Washington.

Fitial supports the bill’s section on a nonvoting delegate, but not its immigration provisions, which would impose both U.S. standards and enforcement on the CNMI — currently exempted from both.

The CNMI has a lively history. Its citizens voted to join the United States as a commonwealth in the mid-1970s. First captured from the Japanese during World War II, the Northern Marianas were the launching point for the flights that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Eventually, the CNMI’s economy came to be dominated by the garment industry. Because the CNMI had been exempted from U.S. immigration and labor laws — unlike, for example, nearby Guam — foreign workers could be paid below minimum wage and still make clothes bearing “Made in the U.S.A.” tags.

At its peak in 1999, the commonwealth produced some $1 billion worth of clothing. This output became highly controversial, in part because lobbyist Jack Abramoff was paid handsomely — over $7 million to his two firms from 1994 to 2001, according to a CNMI public auditor report — to keep federal labor and immigration laws from being imposed by Congress.

The easing of U.S. garment tariffs has weakened the industry considerably in the CNMI, and the commonwealth is now pinning its economic hopes on tourism. But Fitial economic adviser Richard Pierce says imposing a lumbering federal bureaucracy on the islands could drive away tourists as well as potential workers.

The bill reported out of the Natural Resources Committee contained some changes for which both Fitial and Tenorio had fought.

One addition extended a visa waiver program to foreign tourists visiting the CNMI; the original program had only covered visitors to Guam. The change was meant to make the commonwealth more attractive to East Asian tourists — who make up the bulk of visitors to the islands — and help jump-start the territory’s economy.

Another more controversial amendment removed a provision from the bill that would have granted permanent U.S. resident status to longtime foreign workers in the CNMI, for the first time giving them the freedom to live elsewhere in the U.S.

Foreign workers make up about half of the CNMI’s 70,000 inhabitants, and officials worried that workers granted the new status would move en masse to Guam or the mainland.

During markup, Natural Resources ranking member Don Young (R-Alaska) warned of “extraordinary costs” to the CNMI and Guam “from such a rapid influx of new citizens into these small island communities.”

But the removal of the grandfather clause dismayed former Clinton administration human rights advocate Wendy Doromal, who was at the markup.

Many foreign workers have been in the CNMI most of their adult lives, with children born as U.S. citizens on the islands, she said, and they deserve permanent status. This was especially important, she said, given allegations of past labor abuses such as confiscation of passports by employers and forcing workers to “repay” their employers for the cost of airfare by working for free.

“I worry that indentured servitude would be funded by the U.S. instead of the CNMI government” without passage of the grandfather provision, Doromal said.

Because the CNMI has enforced its own immigration policies for so long, bill opponents like Pierce and Duffy question the push to federalize immigration now, especially since three federal government studies of conditions in the CNMI — including one by the Government Accountability Office — have not yet been completed.

But bill sponsor Del. Donna Christian-Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) said the impending transfer of large numbers of U.S. troops from Okinawa, Japan, to Guam was the primary reason to move the bill forward now, as the CNMI is just 40 miles from Guam and porous immigration there could put the military at risk.

Malinda Matson, Tenorio’s chief of staff, offered another reason. She said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had pledged that the CNMI would not get a delegate in Congress unless labor issues involving foreign workers were settled first.

Bill supporters may have to wait until next year to see it reach the House and Senate floors.

A staffer for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) did not know when the bill would hit the floor.

A spokesman for Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the sponsor of the Senate companion bill, said the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is focusing on the comprehensive energy appropriations bill and is taking a “wait-and-see” approach to the Marianas legislation.

He said Akaka was confident the bill would see a Senate floor vote, though possibly not until 2008.

Correction: Dec. 3, 2007
The article misidentified Pedro A. Tenorio, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ resident representative. He was the former lieutenant governor of the CNMI, not the former governor. Additionally, former White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy was hired by the CNMI to do public relations work against a bill federalizing CNMI’s immigration provisions. He was not hired to lobby.

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