CAPITAL HILL, Saipan - US President George Bush signed on Thursday morning (late Thursday night in Manila) a bill that applies federal immigration law to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), which is expected to benefit many of the 10,000 documented Filipino workers here.
“This is a significant victory for every advocate, every federal official, and every person who has fought to end labor and human rights abuses in the CNMI. It is a momentous victory for the guest workers in the CNMI," said US-based human rights advocate Wendy Doromal, moments after the White House announced Bush’s signing of S. 2739.
S. 2739 or the "Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008" finally brings the CNMI under the federal immigration system practiced in all parts of the United States.
The CNMI, which is home to some 19,000 foreign workers mainly Filipinos, is the only US territory that has independent immigration policy.
With the signing of the law, the islands’ immigration rules shall have been changed by June 2009.
The new law also grants the CNMI a non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives.
It also tightens the CNMI’s border control, especially with the military buildup on Guam, another US territory that is only about 120 miles south of Saipan, the commonwealth’s capital.
Many long-time Filipino workers interviewed by GMANews.TV, including those who have been here for over 20 years, were ecstatic about the prospect of enjoying the benefits of the federal guest worker program.
Under the new law, employers in the CNMI may petition their foreign workers for H visas, or acquire temporary CNMI-only non-immigrant work permits.
Existing CNMI government-approved foreign workers who are legally present in the CNMI under its immigration laws on the effective date of the transition period are temporarily protected from deportation.
Another option for CNMI employers is that during and after the transition period, they can petition for non immigrant status and employment-based permanent immigration status for workers under the same procedures as other US employers.
David Cohen, former deputy assistant secretary for insular affairs of the US Department of the Interior and one of the drafters of the original bill federalizing CNMI immigration, said the enactment of the law is a “positive first step."
Concerned US government agencies, he said, “must now develop regulations and implement the law in a way that benefits the CNMI's economy, its indigenous people, guest workers from the Philippines and other countries and the US as a whole."
“I hope that the CNMI government will finally agree to participate in this process in a constructive manner. I also hope that Congress will follow up with legislation making long-term guest workers eligible for US permanent residence. I strongly believe that such a move would create a stable workforce that is less likely to drive down wages, and hence would benefit the local business community and the indigenous people of the CNMI as much as the guest workers," Cohen told GMANews.TV via e-mail.
‘Green card’ for guest workers
Jerry Custodio, president of the Human Dignity Movement which claims thousands of guest worker members in the CNMI, thanked everyone who supported the bill’s passage.
Custodio, from Tacloban, told GMANews.TV that they have so far gathered 5,000 signatures petitioning the US Congress to grant “green cards" to long-term guest workers in the CNMI.
The CNMI is only about three hours away from Manila.
“We still need to address the issue of federal permanent status for the long-term guest workers. Now that the bill is signed, I will be carrying the petition from the guest workers to Washington, DC that requests green card status for the legal CNMI long-term guest workers. The guest workers have gotten over 5,000 signatures and are still working to get more," said Doromal.
He said representatives and advocates of the guest worker community deserve to have a seat at the table in negotiations and in drafting the rules for the new law.
“It is time for the CNMI government to work in unity with the federal government to set the CNMI on a path towards prosperity; to work to unify all of the people who call the CNMI home," she added.
But CNMI Governor Benigno R. Fitial said he may challenge the new law in court. Litigation is one of the three options he cited in dealing with the federalization bill.
He said the CNMI economy will suffer further once the federal government seizes control of CNMI immigration.
End to worker exploitation
Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the US House Education and Labor Committee, said the problems with the old way of doing business in the Northern Marianas were “legion."
“For many years, this 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," Miller said right after Bush’s signing of the law.
Miller has been seeking reform of the laws governing the CNMI for more than 15 years.
Efforts in the past decades to extend US immigration laws to the CNMI failed in the US Congress due partly to CNMI-hired lobbyists like the convicted Jack Abramoff.
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.
“The Abramoff scandal was the poster child for Republican corruption in Washington and was a significant reason for Republicans losing control of the House in the 2006 election, and the Northern Mariana Islands and its sweatshop owners were among Abramoff’s most lucrative clients," he said.
He said that although it was clear to nearly everyone that the CNMI’s system was “broken and unfair," it took a Democratic Congress to end this sordid chapter in American history.
The new law, he added, responds to recommendations from the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, the INS, the Commission on Immigration Reform, human rights activists, and many others.
“This law will usher in a new, safer and more just era for the Northern Mariana Islands, and for the men and women who live and work there," he said.
The CNMI was granted a special waiver from federal immigration laws in 1986 when it entered into a covenant with the US government to govern its population and run its own economy.
When the islands became a center for the garment industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the loose immigration laws in the CNMI were exploited to bring in thousands of unregulated garment workers under false pretexts and no accountability.
Concerns were raised that the loose immigration laws also allowing for narcotics trafficking and other illegal activity.
S. 2739 was introduced by US Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) on March 10, 2008. It passed the US Senate on April 10, 2008 by a vote of 91-4.
On April 29, the US House of Representatives passed the bill on a vote of 291-117, and was cleared for the White House that same day.
President Bush also signed into law on Thursday S. 2457, which authorizes the Mashantucket Pequot (Western) Tribe to lease certain land to entities for up to 75 years, rather than 25 years as under current law. Pinoys cheer signing of CNMI federalization bill