GARAPAN, Saipan – Hundreds of Filipinos and other foreign workers on Saturday held a candlelight vigil to press for lawful permanent residence – or “green cards" – to thousands of guest workers in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), two days after US President George Bush signed a measure applying federal immigration to the CNMI.
A “green card" affords non-US citizens some of the rights US citizens enjoy, sometimes with the prospect of naturalization.
“To US legislators from US citizen children, please give green card to our parents," read one of the banners held by foreign workers and their children who joined the peaceful vigil.
Filipinos and other guest workers have so far gathered over 6,000 signatures pressing the US Congress to grant “green cards" to longtime foreign workers.
The CNMI Department of Labor immediately issued emergency regulations capping the number of foreign workers in the CNMI at 22,417.
This means that the CNMI government – which opposes federal control of the local immigration - will not allow an increase in the total number of foreign workers who are present in the CNMI effective immediately.
Most of the 19,000 documented foreign workers currently in the CNMI are Filipinos.
President Bush’s signing into law of S. 2739 or the "Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008" brings the CNMI under the federal immigration system practiced in all parts of the United States, grants the CNMI a non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives, and tightens border control especially with the military buildup in neighboring Guam.
The CNMI is the only US territory that has independent immigration policy.
CNMI voters will elect their first delegate to the US Congress in November.
“Thank you Pres. Bush, our parents can now be victors and not victims anymore," and “Thank you Pres. Bush, Cong Miller, Wendy Doromal," read the other banners held by guest workers during the vigil.
There are four options for CNMI employers under the new law: Petition their foreign workers for H visas; acquire temporary CNMI-only non-immigrant work permits; seek temporary protection from deportation of existing foreign workers; and petition the foreign workers for nonimmigrant status and employment-based permanent immigration status under the same procedures as other US employers.
Under the new law, the US Secretary of Homeland Security must work with the State Secretary, the Attorney General, the Labor Secretary, and the Interior Secretary to establish the transition program, which will be in effect from June 1, 2009 to Dec. 31, 2014.
Between now and June next year, local labor and immigration laws still apply to the CNMI.
During the transition period, there will be no limit on the number of workers who can enter the CNMI (or Guam) on H visas.
The new law requires the US administration, in consultation with the CNMI, to report to Congress no later than the second year after enactment on the population of alien workers, status of aliens under federal law, future requirements of the CNMI for an alien workforce, and recommendations on whether Congress should consider permitting such workers long-term status under US.
This brings hope to thousands of long-term foreign workers in the CNMI wanting a better immigration status or “green cards."
Protect guest workers from deportation
Guest worker groups also press for the passage of a bill in the CNMI House of Representatives allowing Filipinos and other guest workers who have been in the CNMI for at least five years to apply for a more permanent immigration status.
While Rep. Tina Sablan’s bill does not offer permanent residency, resident status, citizenship, or nationality to a resident foreign national, it would enable foreign workers to live and work at will in the CNMI in the same manner as a permanent resident.
They would also receive employment preference over other foreign workers.
“We need Tina’s bill to be passed to protect foreign workers from deportation during the transition period," said Bonifacio Sagana, Filipino president of the four-year-old Dekada Movement.
The Dekada Movement, which claims 3,000 members, is the first group of foreign workers mostly from the Philippines to press for a better immigration status for longtime guest workers in the CNMI.
For Ricardo Reyes, 60, a job security brought by an improved immigration status will be a great help to his family. He has six children in the Philippines.
When Reyes first came to Saipan in 1991 to work as a heavy equipment operator, he was earning $2.75 an hour. Seventeen years later, he still earns the minimum wage of $3.55 an hour.
He said the low dollar-peso exchange rate and the high prices of basic commodities are making it harder to make ends meet. Most of his earnings are remitted to the Philippines.
“Wala naming Pilipino na hindi nagnanais na maging US citizen kung me pagkakataon, para sa kinabukasan ng pamilya nila (There is no Filipino who doesn’t want US citizenship if there’s a chance, for their family’s future)," said Reyes.
'United' guest workers again
The vigil also saw the joining of forces of two major guest worker groups – the Dekada Movement and the Human Dignity Movement – which parted ways weeks after the historic unity march in December.
Irene Tantiado, president of the newly formed Coalition of United Guest Workers (CNMI), asked both parties to reconcile to jointly press for a better immigration status to eligible foreign workers.
“The biggest achievement tonight is bringing all the groups together, reunited," Tantiado, who hails from Cebu, told GMANews.TV.
CNMI resident Joseph Muna Mendiola said the vigil gave justice to the phrase, “United we stand." He said as native CNMI resident, he has been advocating for a federal immigration since 1982.
“A federal immigration will be more strict than the CNMI’s present system. They will flush out illegal workers and that’s what we want – retain those who are legally working," he told GMANews.TV.
He added that corruption will be dealt with under a federal system.
“The CNMI has been receiving federal grants for almost everything – food stamp, for power, sewer, water, salaries of many employees, typhoon aid but we don’t see improvements because of corruption," he said.
Jerry Custodio, president of the Human Dignity Movement, said they have so far gathered over 6,000 signatures petitioning the US Congress to grant “green cards" to longtime foreign workers in the CNMI.
Florida-based human rights advocate Wendy Doromal will be personally handing over the signatures to key US lawmakers including Rep. George Miller (D-CA), during next week’s informal event to celebrate the signing into law of the CNMI immigration federalization measure.
Miller said for many years, the CNMI labor and immigration system and its exploiters “did great harm to guest workers and their families, and the islands’s society and economy have been stifled as well."
“Those who profited from this exploitation depended on the notorious and corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his many supporters in Congress who blocked reform for over a decade," said Miller, who has been seeking reform of the laws governing the CNMI for more than 15 years.
When Democrats took control of Congress in January 2007, they made CNMI federalization a priority, citing continuous reports of slave labor, prostitution and human trafficking in the CNMI and limited rights for guest workers.
CNMI Governor Benigno R. Fitial called the enactment of the federalization bill “the end of an era for the people and government" of the CNMI.
He said local immigration and labor controls helped transform the CNMI economy during the 1980s and 1990s, and raised the standard of living for local and foreign workers alike.
“I had hoped to continue using these economic tools to orchestrate an economic recovery for the CNMI, and I deeply regret that recently passed legislation may impede our local government's ability to orchestrate an economic recovery based on sound economic incentives and competitive free market policies," he added.
But other federal and local officials called on the CNMI leaders not to derail the federal government’s takeover of CNMI immigration like filing a lawsuit.
They ask him to cooperate instead in the drafting of the implementing regulations to make sure the new system would have as little adverse impact as possible on the local population, the guest workers, and the private businesses. - GMANews.TV