Due to failure by the island government to commit to much-needed reforms, the Clinton administration will propose next month to the U.S. Congress a fresh bid to seek federal takeover of local immigration, minimum wage and custom standards.
Edward B. Cohen, President Clinton’s special representative to the 902 talks, said he had “reluctantly” recommended the move in view of the Tenorio administration’s inability to stick with a package of reforms it has promised to undertake.
He cited the exemptions granted to businesses from the hiring ban on foreign workers imposed last year in the CNMI as well as the failure by a local wage review board to propose increase in the island’s minimum wage level.
Mr. Cohen also maintained that since meeting with local officials during the 902 talks held on Saipan earlier this year, the CNMI government has “not continued” efforts to curb labor abuses here and stem influx of nonresident workers.
“I had deferred making any recommendations to the President after our consultations earlier this year, hoping that abuses would be adequately addressed and legislation would be unnecessary,” he said in a statement released by his office in Washington D.C. last Friday.
“Unfortunately reform efforts have not continued,” added Mr. Cohen, as he noted that while the labor moratorium law and the wage review board were in place when he was here, the local government has granted waivers from the ban and that the CNMI’s minimum wage is still $3.05 per hour.
Mr. Cohen held discussion last January with Lt. Gov. Jesus R. Sablan, head of the CNMI panel, in the resumption of the 902 talks to try to bridge differences on the island’s handling of its labor and immigration. Both sides, however, failed to agree on these issues.
Last May the White House’s special emissary sent Mr. Sablan a package of proposals outlining steps to strip CNMI the authority over immigration, minimum wage and custom policies.
It is not certain whether these proposals are similar to those to be sent to Congress when it resumes session in January 2000, but Mr. Cohen said he had submitted the report to Mr. Clinton.
According to his statement, the report noted that “while Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio’s administration has made efforts to address some of the most egregious secondary effects of the CNMI’s labor and immigration policies, the CNMI has failed to address its fundamental problems.”
It added that “in recent months the CNMI’s commitment to reform has waned.”
There is no immediate reaction from the Tenorio administration, but this proposal is expected to draw opposition from island officials.
In 1997, Mr. Clinton also proposed to Congress full application of U.S. laws on CNMI’s immigration, minimum wage and customs, but that legislation did not win support from Republican leaders from the House of Representatives.
Mr. Cohen pointed out that proposal is similar, but not identical, to his new recommendations contained in the report to the President.
Because of the “fundamental philosophical difference” on these issues, he said this proposed legislation is necessary to change the island’s flawed foreign labor system and custom practices.
“The CNMI envisions facilitating, rather than controlling the steady stream of low-paid foreign workers,” said Mr. Cohen, adding that this policy counters U.S. immigration and labor laws that admit migrant workers for integration into the economic and political structure of the nation.
“The time has come to control the massive flow of foreign temporary workers into the CNMI and permit those who are allowed to work and live in the CNMI to enjoy the opportunities that come with being a part of America,” he said.
There are several legislation pending in Congress concerning the CNMI, including a measure offered by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) seeking extension of U.S. immigrations laws to the island, which will be up for voting in the next few months.
The federal takeover agenda of the Clinton administration have consistently drawn protests from CNMI leaders, who say such a plan will spell economic collapse and return to U.S. doleouts because of the limited labor force and resources on the island.