The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) until very recently was one of the most exploitative places in the United States. In a move toward better labor and immigration practices, on Friday, April 11, the US Senate passed S. 2739, an omnibus bill covering everything from public lands and national parks, to territory issues. Sandwiched amidst these things is the matter of the CNMI’s future ability to control its immigration and labor policy.
To date, the CNMI has sole control over non-immigrants entering its territory and a minimum wage of US$3.55. If approved by the House and signed by the president, this bill will force the CNMI’s existing immigration and minimum wage laws to conform to federal law.
S. 2739 passed by a vote of 91-4 and is said to have bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, as its provisions are identical to the House version, H.R. 3079, which passed by the House in December of last year.
“These provisions are crucial to address the immigration abuses that have persisted in the CNMI for the past 20 years,” said Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI).
Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who also supports the bill, said the measure will help correct the “profound problems in local immigration laws that have enabled the import of low paid, short termed indentured workers to be brought to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Some were bought to work in garment factories. Others arrived in the CNMI, only to find that there was no job waiting for them, and were forced to find unpalatable means to work off their bondage debt,” he added.
The Fitial administration, which currently governs the CNMI, staunchly opposes the immigration bill, saying its unnecessary restrictions will only serve to damage the CNMI’s fragile economy.
Lynn Knight, chairperson of the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, who was in Washington D.C. to lobby against the bill, expressed concerns regarding the way guest workers will be handled in the CNMI in the future.
“I’m very concerned that the formula in the bill called for the reduction of the guest workers population to zero and trades it for several H visa systems,” Knight said. “I’m very concerned about that because the types of jobs that the H system calls for does not apply to any of the jobs that we have in the CNMI. The H visa system is very inflexible; it will not work. It’s for very specialized jobs and it’s for seasonal jobs. The vast majority of the jobs that we have do not fit into the H visa system, therefore, we’re either going lose out or we’re going to have to negotiate a new kind of labor permit that the federal government doesn’t now have.”
The bill, however, does have that exempt the CNMI and Guam from the cap on the number of temporary work visas issued nationwide.
Representative George Miller (D-CA), who has been pushing for federal policy changes to CNMI labor and immigration controls for over 15 years, said: “The Senate’s good work today marks the first time that both the House and Senate have approved legislation closing the legal loopholes that have allowed some of the poorest men and women in the world to be lured to the CNMI, abused, and exploited in sweatshops in this American territory.”
Previous efforts by the federal government to take control of the CNMI’s labor and immigration were until now blocked by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.