The CNMI-Only Transitional Worker (CW) program was established by Congress pursuant to Public Law 110-229. This federal law is referred to as the “Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008,” a comprehensive federal legislation that became effective on May 8, 2008. Title VII of the Act removed CNMI control over all immigration matters in the CNMI, including those relating to nonresident workers. Because immigration matters in the CNMI are now governed by federal law, only U.S. Congress can make changes to the CW program, which relates to nonresident workers in the CNMI.
The federal legislation that removed CNMI control over immigration matters was enacted in 2008 by the Democratic Party-controlled Congress. It was done primarily in response to the years of federal frustration over the lax CNMI immigration practice. Under local immigration control, the CNMI had allowed tens of thousands of foreign workers to enter, work, and indefinitely reside in the CNMI. The federal government was especially frustrated with the many garment companies owned by foreign entities, which had set up shop in the CNMI in the mid-1980s and thereafter. Their objective in relocating to the CNMI was to bypass the U.S. quota restriction imposed on textile products manufactured in foreign countries, by conducting their operations in the CNMI, but carrying on as if they were still in China.
During its heyday, these foreign-owned garment companies were employing roughly 16,000 or so workers in the CNMI. Together with the non-garment workers of another 18,000 foreign workers, more or less, the nonresident worker population in the CNMI outnumbered the local resident population.
Most of the garment workers were housed in factory barracks that were locked up at night. And cries of “modern-day slavery taking place on U.S. soil” were publicized worldwide on many of the national print and broadcast journalism. It was a huge blackeye for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
CNMI government leaders, against all odds however, fought the federal government for many years to retain local control over immigration matters. And, for some time, through the lobbying effort of the now-disgraced Jack Abramoff, a close friend and associate of CNMI Republicans and the CNMI garment industry, they were successful under the Republican-controlled Congress. But as soon as the Democrats, led by then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, took control of both houses of Congress in 2006, Congress immediately enacted the law that removed CNMI control over all local immigration matters.
In enacting this federal legislation, however, the U.S. Congress did not fully thought out the long-term consequences that the provisions of this law would have on the present and future economy of the CNMI. The U.S. Congress simply decided to phase out completely the CNMI nonresident worker program over a five-year period. This period has been extended since. But the last extension is expiring at a certain point and the CNMI is once again faced with the perennial issue of ensuring that there would be enough workers to service the CNMI visitor industry and the newly introduced casino gaming industry.
Eight years have now passed since the enactment of the federal legislation that removed CNMI control over local immigration matters. The dilemma the CNMI now faces is this: as the economy of the CNMI begins to develop (for better or worse), the CW program will at some point be phased out completely over the term allowed by Public Law 110-229. The ultimate goal of this federal law, as we should know by now, is to phase-out completely the CW program.
CNMI leaders, both public and private, should recall that the U.S. House of Representatives Sub-Committee on Insular Affairs conducted a historic hearing on Saipan on Aug. 15, 2007 regarding the proposed federal immigration takeover. And local concerns were raised with the Subcommittee regarding the provisions of the proposed federal law. The House Subcommittee on Insular Affair, composed almost entirely of the non-voting delegates from Guam, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, heard the concerns raised by the people of the CNMI who submitted testimonies or personally testified. But the die was already cast that the CNMI will be treated just like any member of the American political family with respect to immigration matters. The CNMI nonresident workers program, in particular, was targeted for phasing out, albeit gradually under federal control. We are now witnessing that federal objective. And our leaders are alarmed that unless there are sufficient workers to service the visitor and casino industries, the economy of the CNMI will move at a snail’s pace.
So today, and for the last several years, the CNMI continues to ask the federal government to extend (if not allow more foreign workers under) the CW program. But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for immigration matters, cannot do anything that the Act does not permit. In other words, the issue of CNMI nonresident workers is a matter completely under the control of Congress.
To make matters worse, 2016 is probably the worst year to raise the CW issue because of the highly emotional partisan divide now present in Congress over the larger issue of national immigration control. The 11 million undocumented aliens in the United States themselves have yet to be accorded any legal relief to their plight that they may also be deported. So this is a hotly and emotionally contested issue during this U.S. presidential-election year. And, as we should know by now, the CNMI does not have any political clout in the national political scheme.
The chances, therefore, of the CNMI getting another extension or being given a nonresident worker exception this year and next year are, for all practical purpose, wishful thinking. The honeymoon period between the United States and the CNMI (as a favorite but stubborn child under the U.S. flag) ended in 2008, and CNMI leaders have to start accepting this fact.
Jose S. Dela Cruz