902 letter now with White House


Gov. Eloy S. Inos has drawn the attention of President Barack Obama to two sensitive and complicated issues he believes tests the political relationship between the United States and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands—the impending expiration of the local contract worker program in 2019, and the Department of Defense’s desire to acquire new properties in the CNMI.

Inos’ letter was hand-delivered directly to the White House through the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs on Wednesday. Officials met Jason Osborne, a consultant hired for public relations and administration support in the U.S. capitol, outside the White House to accept the letter, Saipan Tribune gathered yesterday. Osborne flew to D.C. on Monday.

“I believe the two sensitive and complicated matters affecting our Covenant agreement are: (i) the approaching expiration of the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker (CW) visa classification; and the (ii) the United States Department of Defense’s desire and intentions to acquire new properties in the Northern Marianas Islands (and to alter the proposed use of land already under lease),” Inos writes in his letter to Obama.

Inos’ proposal had been in the works over the last year, since he declared it a goal in his inauguration speech last January. The letter comes almost a year after the contract worker program was extended to 2019 last year, and was signed last Friday, the day U.S. Department of Navy declared that further analysis of its live-fire training and bombing project in the CNMI was needed.

Inos’ letter formally initiates Section 902 consultation between the White House and the CNMI pursuant to the CNMI Covenant. That agreement established the political union between the CNMI and the United States more than three decades ago. Section 902 of the Covenant allows for the CNMI and 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.

Thousands of workers short

In his letter, Inos writes that the CNMI’s economic growth and potential development will remain heavily dependent on foreign workers in the immediate short-term future, given that its total population is only slight more than 50,000 people.

“However, the U.S. Commonwealth Worker Program is presently set to expire in 2019,” Inos writes. “This program presently permits approximately 14,000 non-U.S. citizen workers to live in the Northern Marianas Islands and work in essential labor intensive and specialized industries such as in the construction and health care provider fields.”

“The Northern Marianas Islands is currently undergoing significant developments, and we foresee no other way to abruptly replace these guest workers at this stage,” Inos said. “For these reasons and in order for the business community to prepare for the future, I request consultation on this important matter.”

In 1978, the Covenant gave the CNMI control of local immigration. In the years following, a liberal influx of foreign workers were allowed through legislation, moving thousands from the Philippines, China, Thailand, and other countries to support a growing garment and tourism industry.

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.

A total of 14,000 CW visas were allotted in 2014, according to Homeland Security statistics. In 2010, the total number of unemployed U.S. workers in the CNMI amounted to only about 20 percent of its 14,958 foreign workers, according to U.S. Department of Labor. That means even if all unemployed U.S. workers joined the labor force, more than 11,000 jobs would still need to be filled by foreign workers.

“We do have a deadline,” House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) said Wednesday after a meeting with Esther Kia’aina, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas, on the issue of immigration, labor, and other issues.

“Based on our projections, we will have close to 4,000 rooms in the very near future, and that’s not even including the 2,000 rooms [from Best Sunshine International, Ltd.],” Guerrero said.

“There are projections between 7,000 to 11,000 jobs that will have to be filled. And if Congress is going to eventually zero out these [workers], how are we to” meet those demands?

“This issue is the main issue,” Guerrero said, referring to the 902 talks. “…The federal government needs to realize that tourism is our bread and butter, and that these developments are in tourism and that even if every person on this island, every U.S. citizen, is employed, we still have a void. And that’s the challenge right now.”

Guerrero said Kia’aina told them to come up with more accurate projections, be more specific in which sectors need more employees, and in what positions.

“And to bring those over to Congress,” Guerrero said. “We need to make them understand with real data what we are facing,” and have them grant the flexibility to decision-makers to extend the program or maybe “change the law to give us some type of exemption,” Guerrero said.

‘CW law needs revisiting’

Rep. Angel Demapan (R-Saipan), who has reportedly expressed interest in participating in the 902 talks, told Saipan Tribune yesterday that the Commonwealth is at a very critical juncture in “realizing much needed new and large scale developments.” Demapan chairs the House Committee on Foreign and Federal Relations,

“These new investments will require thousands of skilled workers that are not readily available in our local workforce,” he said. “There is a severe imbalance that exists and if not addressed in a timely manner, our economic growth will be greatly compromised.”

“Understandably, when U.S. Public Law 110-229 was enacted, it gave rise to a transition period that would eventually lead to a complete phase out. However, this methodology needs to be revisited, given the limited population of skilled U.S. citizen workers available here. And even if we wanted to entice U.S. citizens from the U.S. mainland to take on jobs here, our geographic remoteness makes it difficult to attract them. 

“What’s even more troubling is the removal of the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s discretionary authority to extend the transition period in accordance with the labor needs of the Commonwealth. I thank Assistant Secretary Kia’aina for revealing this information to us because clearly, this came as a shock to the local leadership.

“I question this move as it does not provide any form of flexibility for the Commonwealth when the deadline arrives. This is not economically sensible. The discretionary authority should not have been removed. What we have here is another example of policy decisions being made in Washington without regard for the economic wellbeing of the people of the Commonwealth. This is definitely an issue that I’d like to see taken up in the 902 talks. 

“Oftentimes, the small insular areas like the CNMI are overlooked in national politics, but as local leaders, we cannot sit idly and let this pass. We need to keep pressing the issue. We need to make our voices heard in Washington. I am hopeful that come time for the 902 talks, the White House will heed the concerns of the Commonwealth. We are not asking for any form of preferential treatment. All we are asking for is the opportunity to expand our economic growth so that we can enhance the standard of living for all who call the CNMI home,” Demapan said.

Military’s radical impact

In his letter, Inos also cited the Navy’s “CNMI Joint Military Training Project,” which proposes to construct live-fire training ranges on Tinian and Pagan.

“I believe Section 902 consultation is appropriate under the present circumstances as the recently proposed Department of Defense activities in the Northern Marianas Islands will—if carried out as planned—radically impact the fragile marine and terrestrial ecosystem and the quality of life for the citizens and residents living here,” Inos said. “Moreover, the Department of Defense’s proposed projects will fundamentally alter existing land lease agreements entered into by the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States nearly 40 years ago.”

“In sum, I do not believe that the environmental law process is the appropriate forum in which the Northern Mariana Islands should address or respond to the Department of Defense’s efforts to, in effect, unilaterally amend existing land agreements or acquire new lands for additional defense related purposes. The acquisition and use of land in the Northern Mariana Islands by the military was the most important and contentious issue negotiated by F. Haydn Williams [U.S. Ambassador to Micronesia] and the members of the Marianas Future Political Status Commission. The Department of Defense’s present day intentions will, in effect, amend the Covenant and other technical documents. This is a serious issue ripe for consultations.”

Inos is talking about are two salient legal agreements that officials believed will be violated or altered by the Navy’s live-fire plans, if carried out. They are the CNMI Covenant, and the Technical Agreement Regarding Use of Land by the United States in the Northern Marianas Islands. Both documents were signed and executed simultaneously nearly 40 decades ago. The agreements describe the “principles which will govern the social structure relations between the United States military and the Northern Mariana Islands civil authorities,” according to the Covenant.

In the original lease—which gave up two-thirds of Tinian land and the entire Farallon de Medinialla to Defense—the intent was to install a military base on Tinian to be called the “Joint Military Service Military Airbase,” as described in the technical agreement.

Administration officials involved in the drafting of the 902 letter believe the Covenant and technical agreements—as they were signed and executed together—are meant to be read and understood in tandem.

The Navy’s live-fire project appears to pivot on these plans, as the U.S. military shifts on Obama’s Pacific pivot.

Inos said the live-fire project threatens the CNMI-U.S. partnership, with its proposed take of the entire of island of Pagan for large-scale, live-fire training (including artillery, aerial, and ship-to-shore bombardment) and to radically and unilaterally alter the previously agreed activities carried out on the military use portion of the island of Tinian.

Dentons LLC, a firm hired by the Inos administration to review the live-fire project, argues that the Navy’s project is “fundamentally incompatible” with these applicable land use agreements.

“The lease agreement governing the military use of Tinian requires that the Navy restore and remediate damage to the island at the close of the lease period. The [draft environmental impact statement] admits that the CJMT will result in permanent environmental impacts that cannot be remedied, raising very significant questions about whether the CJMT is consistent with the lease.”

“The Draft EIS seems to assume that the Navy has an existing right to the groundwater underlying the island of Tinian. Neither the Covenant…nor the Technical Lease Agreement…nor any of the lease agreements between the United States and the CNMI appears to provide such water right,” Denton said.

“In executing the Covenant governing its relations with the CNMI, the United States pledged to ‘continue to recognize and respect the scarcity and special importance of land in the Northern Mariana Islands,’” Dentons said. “Among other things, the Covenant provides that the United States will minimize its acquisition of land within the Commonwealth and will refrain from any involuntary acquisition unless absolutely necessary. The Covenant also states that the United States does not anticipate any need for military use of Pagan.

“The portion of the CJMT proposed for Pagan appears to violate each of these principles: It would involve a substantial acquisition of land against the will of the people; and it would authorize the acquisition of an interest in the entire island of Pagan even though only a portion would be used,” Dentons said.

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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