Acting U.S. assistant Interior secretary for insular areas Eileen Sobeck told U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) that since the passage of a law placing CNMI immigration under federal control, “it has been assumed” that the need for the U.S. Labor Ombudsman’s Office “would not be permanent.”
Sobeck’s letter seals the fate of the ombudsman’s office, which is set to close at the end of fiscal year 2013 on Sept. 30.
This, despite calls to keep the ombudsman’s office open, at least until the end of the transitional program for alien workers in the CNMI.
For 14 years, the ombudsman’s office has aided thousands of foreign workers in the CNMI who were victims of labor abuses, human trafficking, sex trafficking and illegal recruitment, among other things.
Sobeck said once the Consolidated Natural Resources Act—the federalization law—was passed, “it was anticipated that many of the immigration and labor abuses would abate, especially as the last garment factory closed in early 2009, sharply curtailing demand for foreign workers in CNMI.”
She said the number of alien workers in the CNMI has dropped from over 40,000 to some 16,000.
“Therefore, since the passage of the CNRA, it has been assumed that need for the Office would not be permanent,” Sobeck told Wyden.
Sobeck’s letter was dated Aug. 29, a response to Wyden’s May 31 letter addressed to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. She said the Interior secretary asked her to respond on her behalf.
Bonifacio Sagana, president of Dekada Movement, said last night that federalization didn’t end the problems concerning labor and immigration abuses.
“A lot of things haven’t changed since [Jack] Abramoff time, many of the workers haven’t received awarded labor claims,” he added.
The current labor ombudsman in the CNMI is Pamela Brown.
Prior to the CNRA’s enactment, the Federal Labor Ombudsman’s Office was necessary to assist victims of egregious labor and trafficking violations, Sobeck said.
It has now been nearly five years since November 2009 when the federal government, through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has taken over immigration responsibilities in the CNMI.
“In the past several years, the work of the Ombudsman’s office has shifted dramatically from working on serious labor and trafficking violations to assisting individual alien workers with more routine immigration and labor issues,” Sobeck reiterated.
She said the number of new cases opened in 2012 was approximately half the number of those opened in 2008.
In 2008, she said nearly 80 percent of the cases that the ombudsman’s office referred concerned labor violations, while in 2012, 80 percent of the cases referred related to immigration-related matters, Sobeck said.
Florida-based human rights activist and former CNMI teacher Wendy Doromal said the argument that the U.S. takeover of CNMI immigration would solve problems is invalid because of a major flaw—the lack of a provision granting an eventual pathway to citizenship for legal long-term nonresidents.
“As long as nonresident workers are regarded as replaceable and disposable, they will remain deprived of basic rights and they will need the federal ombudsman,” Doromal said.
Doromal added that more startling is the fact that Sobeck “minimizes the current trafficking, abuse labor and immigration problems that nonresidents continue to suffer.”
Sobeck answered 13 questions posed by Wyden related to the Interior’s plans to close the ombudsman’s office and plans for transitioning its operations to other local and federal agencies.
She told Wyden that Interior expects that immigration, law enforcement, and labor grievances by aliens within the CNMI will be properly handled by relevant federal or local agencies with jurisdiction over the claim.
As for the number of open cases that the ombudsman’s office now has, Sobeck said the office is currently in the process of updating its list.
The office’s review of trafficking cases has shown some 35 open cases, and no new trafficking cases have come into the office since September 2012.
Sobeck said it is important to note that all cases on the docket have been referred to appropriate federal or local agencies for disposition.
She pointed out that the ombudsman’s office does not handle grievances.
The office intakes complaints and assists aliens in filling out the paperwork that is then submitted to the appropriate local or federal entity for investigation or if appropriate, adjudication, Sobeck said.
Sobeck added that the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs will fill the vacant CNMI field representative position, who will absorb some of the duties that the ombudsman currently handles.
She said the $250,000 provided by the closure of the ombudsman’s office will provide much needed resources to insular areas.