A bill federalizing the immigration system in the Commonwealth is only one step away from being law.
By a vote of 291-117, the U.S. House of Representatives approved yesterday Senate bill 2739, which includes a provision to federalize immigration controls in the Northern Marianas. The bill also grants the Northern Marianas a delegate with limited voting powers in the U.S. House.
The measure now heads to the White House. Once the bill is received from Congress, President George W. Bush has 10 days to sign the bill into law. With Bush expected to approve the legislation, the federalization bill could be in effect within the next three weeks.
Gov. Benigno R. Fitial deferred issuing comments on the passage of the bill, which his administration has opposed strongly.
“I am pleased with the enactment of the legislation providing for a Northern Marianas delegate in the House of Representatives. I am disappointed with the remainder of the legislation and may have further comments on the subject in my State of the Commonwealth speech on Friday,” he said.
Pete A. Tenorio, the Commonwealth’s resident representatives to Washington, D.C., called the expected enactment of the bill “a new era for our government.”
“I am pleased with the passage of the bill, and I am sure most people will agree with me that this something we needed for a long time,” said Tenorio.
Rep. Tina Sablan, also a supporter of the bill, said she was pleased that “we’re one step closer to normalizing our labor and immigration.” She expressed hope that local officials and community leaders would now stop arguing the pros and cons of the bill and work together to make the new system work for the Commonwealth.
For the local business sector, hotel industry leader Lynn M. Knight warned of the bill’s massive implications which she said will not be fully understood until the bill is implemented.
“This legislation will put further strains on a small island economy that is already in a severe economic decline. We hope it will not hamper our ability to recover,” said Knight, chairwoman of the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands.
“Unfortunately, rather than taking the opportunity to give us tools to pick our economy back up, the bill does not offer any incentives to help mitigate the impacts it will have as it forces massive changes. Going forward, it is clear that we are going to need more help,” she added.
But Knight also said that HANMI is committed to working with the administration and the federal government on the education effort and on the drafting the implementing rules and regulations.
“We need to think as practically as possible about this, and business people can help think things through. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” she said.
Jim Arenovski, president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, told Saipan Tribune in an e-mail that he has nothing new to say on the bill. “It just passed the House as predicted and we will probably have nothing to say when the President signs it.”
Proponents of the immigration measure in the U.S. House hailed the passage of the bill.
“For too long, abuses took place in the CNMI, and for too long, remedial legislation was hostage in this body. Let this legislation bring forth a new dawn, a start of a new era, and with a delegate to this body, let the voices of the people of the CNMI be heard,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall. He co-sponsored the House immigration bill that was later incorporated in the Senate bill.
U.S. Virgin Islands Rep. Donna M. Christensen, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs and chief sponsor of the House bill, sought to allay fears of local employers about the future ability to hire foreign workers in the Commonwealth.
“The Congress approval of [the Northern Mariana Islands Immigration, Security, and Labor Act] will ensure that employers have the ability to fill jobs, continue vocational training to CNMI residents with skills needed to succeed in their economy, foster partnerships with neighboring Guam to diversify the region’s economy, maintain adequate protections for the nonresident guest worker community, and strategically secure the Marianas archipelago,” said Christensen.
House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr., also a cosponsor of ISLA, said the federalization bill “closes the guest worker loophole under which so many were held in modern slavery. The Constitution’s guarantee of freedom must apply everywhere in the United States, no matter how remote.”
For her part, Guam Rep. Madeleine Z. Bordallo praised the provision granting the CNMI a congressional delegate. “I look forward to the day that the delegate from the CNMI is sworn in to the House of Representatives,” she said.
The Bush Administration has testified before both the House and Senate in support of the legislation. Christensen, expressing a strong concern that all people on the CNMI have an opportunity to voice their opinions on H.R. 3079, held the first Congressional hearing on the islands in August 2007.