Federalization comes to the Northern Marianas

Posted on Dec 31 2008

Hailed by some as the birth of an era for human rights in the Commonwealth and condemned by others as the last nail in the coffin of the Commonwealth economy, the imposition of federal immigration law on the Northern Marianas is undoubtedly the biggest news to hit the islands in 2008.

On May 9, 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law a bill applying federal immigration law to the Northern Marianas. The new law also granted the Commonwealth a non-voting delegate seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Under the law, U.S. immigration rules must apply in the CNMI beginning June 1, 2009, unless the Secretary of Homeland Security decides to delay the start of the transition period. The transition period cannot be delayed more than 180 days.

But the White House’s action was not the last word on “federalization,” which the CNMI government had fought at great lengths for two decades.

On Sept. 12, 2008, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial filed a lawsuit in the federal court for the District of Columbia in a bid to block the pending federal takeover of local labor. At issue in the governor’s complaint are the labor provisions of the federalization law, which Fitial claims the U.S. Congress does not have the authority to impose upon the Commonwealth. The governor also says that federalization is against the CNMI’s Covenant-protected right to self-government.

The lawsuit, which is being funded by undisclosed sources, is still pending in court.

Meanwhile, local efforts are underway to try to influence the regulations being crafted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for the implementation of the new immigration law on June 1, 2009.

Two of the key issues under negotiation are the CNMI’s request for visa waivers for Chinese and Russian travelers visiting the islands and special consideration for the foreign investors in the Commonwealth. The CNMI government is also seeking help with the consequences that the new rules might have for the immediate alien relatives of U.S. and Freely Associated States citizens, for the guest workers who must meet certain income criteria to secure temporary work visas, and for the permanent foreign residents and retirees. In addition, the government is asking the DHS to give priority to local immigration employees and U.S. citizens in the Commonwealth when hiring in the CNMI.

While the CNMI appears to have scored a minor victory with the foreign investor visas, hopes are dim that the Northern Marianas will have continued tourism from China and Russia under the new Guam-CNMI visa waiver program. But until the actual regulations come out, it seems one can only hope for the best.

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