902 letter en route to Obama

Kia’iana says ‘grave concerns’ will be discussed; US Labor, Homeland Security, Defense notified

Gov. Eloy S. Inos has written to President Barack Obama to initiate Section 902 consultation talks pursuant to the CNMI Covenant. Inos disclosed yesterday that an official letter to trigger this formal consultation is en route to the White House.

“Yes, the official notification is coming out imminently…in the next day or two on where we stand on the 902 [talks],” Inos said during a press conference with Esther Kia’aina, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas, who has been briefed on the request.

Esther Kia'aina, Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas for the U.S. Department of Interior, speaks with Gov. Eloy S. Inos yesterday on the recovery efforts and mitigation plans after Typhoon Soudelor. (Dennis B. Chan)

Esther Kia’aina, Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas for the U.S. Department of Interior, speaks with Gov. Eloy S. Inos yesterday on the recovery efforts and mitigation plans after Typhoon Soudelor. (Dennis B. Chan)

The Covenant agreement established the political union between the CNMI and the United States more than three decades ago. Section 902 of the agreement allows for the CNMI or federal government to consult on issues “affecting the relationship between them.” During this consultation, the CNMI and federal government designate special representatives to consult, report on, and make recommendations on issues affecting their political relationship.

Saipan Tribune has learned over the last few weeks of two issues that the Inos administration believes is relevant to the Covenant. One is the U.S. military’s intent to acquire new land and alter previous lease agreements for live-fire training and bombing purposes on Tinian and Pagan. Another is the impending expiration of the contract worker program in 2019, which will potentially zero out the 14,000 non-U.S. citizen workers who live and work in the CNMI and contribute to its economy.

Copies of the official 902 request have been embargoed by the Inos administration until the White House confirms its receipt. But the central issues of the requested 902 talks were discussed during the press conference yesterday.

Kia’iana said the request for 902 talks is an appropriate way for the CNMI to raise its concerns with the federal government.

“It’s a right and avenue under the Covenant,” Kia’aina said, noting that it would allow the CNMI to engage with the entire Executive Branch and the White House.

Kia’aina said that Inos has a close relationship with the Department of the Interior and the Office of Insular Affairs but that “902 consultation is consultations with the White House and the entire Executive Branch” and another avenue for interrelations between the United States and the CNMI.

“…It’s powerful,” she said.

Kia’aina said she has already notified the White House and the U.S. departments of Labor, Homeland Security, and Defense about the possibility of such a letter.

“DC is a lonely world,” Kia’aina said. “We cannot be your only advocates. …It’s critically important for the White House and other federal agencies to know the people and what the government of the Marianas is facing at this time.”

“It is the transition to a tourism-driven economy, and the potential of proposed federal activities that have been of grave concern to the people. And it also includes the looming deadline of 2019—an absolute deadline [for the CW program].

“Prior to last November, it was not absolute. You [now] have an absolute deadline come Dec. 31 in 2019; the CW workers will be zeroed out. That should be, I think, on top of the mind for everybody,” Kia’aina said.

CW issue

Under the Covenant signed in 1978, the CNMI was given control of local immigration with the intent for a limited flow of foreign workers. In the years following the agreement, though, a liberal influx of foreign workers were allowed through legislation, moving thousands of immigrants from the Philippines and China to support a growing garment and tourism industry.

Between 1980 and 2000, the CNMI population increased from about 16,800 to 69,000. In 2000, 58 percent of the local population was born in a foreign country.

But the end of favorable international labor agreements shifted garment operations to cheaper locations. Another nail to the industry—Public Law 110-229—transferred local immigration control to the federal government and allowed for a transition period to end in 2014. That transition period was extended last year to 2019, the current and absolute deadline the CNMI now faces.

With 14,000 CW visas allotted in 2014, according to Homeland Security statistics, and the projected growth in hotel-casino developments, officials fear the program’s end poses economic ramifications that would be severe.

“I have grave concerns about that implication for the CNMI’s overall economy,” Kia’ana said yesterday. “The law did not just say [the program] would end in 2019. It took away the discretionary authority of the U.S. Labor Secretary to determine whether or not the CNMI has an extension. That, to me, is of grave concern. Because it is now absolute.”

Kia’aina said she has asked for data to inform “better policy decisions” and work in concert with Congress. That data could be furnished by the Office of Insular Affairs or local agencies, she said.

“There needs to be a policy analysis component that is missing at the moment,” Kia’ana said, referring to how the CNMI currently suffers from a devastating lack of federal and local data. How many of the labor force is unemployed or how educated is the population, or even the current population count, are simple but crucial points to begin planning.

“Given the critical nature of the transition for the CNMI’s economy from the garment industry in the 1990s to where tourism is the driving lead, I think it is important to have the right economic data and what it means,” Kia’aina said. “I believe the immigration-labor issue is the top issue that’s facing the CNMI economy. Everything else is attendant to that.”

The 902 letter

A hard copy of the 902 letter is being hand-carried to Washington, D.C. by Jason Osbourne, a lobbyist who’s been hired by the Inos administration for public relations and support in the U.S. capitol.

Inos’ signature was written on the 14th draft of the letter. A draft had also been shared with OIA for comment.

Osbourne was set to deliver the letter to the National Governors Association last night, who would then pass it on to the White House.

Administration officials have been working on the 902 talks since February. Lt. Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres first raised the issue with Kia’aina during a trip that month to the Interagency Group on Insular Areas’ plenary session in Washington, D.C.

Officials have also reached out to the office of Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP). In March, Osbourne reportedly spoke with Sablan’s chief-of-staff, Bob Schwalbach. From that meeting, it was decided that 902 talks would be limited to the scope of specific, important topics.

In July, Inos officials met with Rep. Angel Demapan (R-Saipan) and Sen. Arnold Palacios (R-Saipan) to discuss topics and strategy for the 902 talks. The lawmakers chair committees on federal relations in the Legislature.

The letter en route to the White House was signed last Friday, Oct. 2.

The letter aims to fulfill a goal and priority set by Inos during his inauguration speech last November.

Throughout the letter’s development, officials have been studying records of previous 902 talks held by past administrations. Officials believe previous 902 talks were not as effective as intended because of the broad range of issues brought to the table, as well as the dramatic differences in opinion between the CNMI and the federal government over issues like the federalization of immigration in the Commonwealth.

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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