How did we get here?


In 2008, the only labor problem facing the CNMI was too many workers and not enough jobs. Any big economic comeback was a pie-in-the-sky dream for us back then. But at least we knew that, if needed, we could make our own immigration decisions for ourselves: in a matter of weeks, or as long as it would take for our own legislators to act.

And now? We’re sitting on the cusp of an economic boom—an economic boom that might not happen, because of laws made for us but not by us, 8,000 miles away in Washington, D.C.—the same Washington that is obligated by the Covenant to protect and promote our best interests.

So how did we get here?

Remember the Unity March?

If you haven’t been here for as long as I and other NMDs have, here’s an article from 10 years ago:

Foreign workers and their self-appointed advocates (here’s looking at you, Wendy) marched down Beach Road, together with many (mostly foreign) business owners, and quite a few opportunistic lawyers. They waved flags and shouted slogans. They had decided that handing over control of our immigration to Washington would fix all our problems. 

What did the unity marchers promise us about federalizing immigration?

They promised that it would fix our economy and give us access to high-quality workers. They promised that it would end fake no-show jobs created just for immigration benefits. They promised it would end the uncertainty of people who have lived here for decades, not knowing whether they can stay another year. And they promised that it would end business owners’ uncertainty of dealing with capricious politics. 

You read that right. They wanted to hand off control to Washington. Because they wanted to avoid politics.

Actually, the feds never even promised us any of those benefits of federalizing immigration. The feds didn’t promise us anything. They only gave us what we asked for: federalized immigration. 

About 150 of us NMDs gathered by the beach to ask the tough questions. Exactly what benefits would federalization bring us? Who would set the worker caps? What input would we have on how it was run? Would all the rules be made from 8,000 miles away?

Nobody listened to us, though. Even Pete A. Tenorio, our Washington representative at the time, wasn’t too interested. All everybody could see was the shiny and very vague promise that the Americans were dangling in front of us.

Does this sound familiar to anybody? Especially if you’ve read Justice Villagomez’s thoughts on the Covenant?

But most everybody believed that the grass is greener on the other side of the ocean. So they gave us federalized immigration. 

And what do we have now?

Are there any fewer scams? Any fewer abuses? Reading the newspapers can answer that question.

Do workers feel any more secure now? Talk to some of them if you don’t know the answer. Or look outside Mount Carmel to see the double-deep line of cars for immediate quick sale.

How about business owners? Are they happy with the 4,999 worker cap and the federally mandated minimum wage? You got nothing there either.

So why was everybody cheering when Washington was given control of our islands’ immigration policy? In fact, why was anybody cheering? I’m writing you from the perspective of an NMD, but I don’t think anybody gained from the federalization. It’s not a matter of one side won and the other side lost. 

How many of those 6,000 “unity” marchers would have been with us 150 NMDs if they had known what we all know now? If we could go back in time and show them what lies ahead, how many of them would show up on our side of the issue now? Probably quite a few. Even quite a few of the CWs. 

Whatever the faults of the CNMI immigration system, it was better than the current situation of everybody but 4,999 lottery winners having to go home. Even if you’ve lived here for decades. Even if you have a job waiting for you. Even if a business—or the hospital—crucially needs you.

Life isn’t a YouTube video and we can’t go back in time. An old guy like me can only say “I told you so.” And more importantly, “We told you so.” I wasn’t the only one who knew what would be coming, but I was one of the few. 

We can use this situation to renegotiate the Covenant. The Covenant was supposed to help our development, wasn’t it? How is cutting down our foreign workforce helping our development? But negotiating the Covenant won’t happen overnight. Nothing happens overnight when dealing with the feds. That’s one of the lessons we learned too slowly.

We’re just a small island. But look at California. They’re the fifth biggest economy in the world. And they’ve got exactly the same problem: they depend largely on foreign labor. And with new regulations, Washington has taken away much of their foreign labor, both at the high end (H1B visas) and at the low end (undocumented agricultural workers).

And what is California doing? At least they’re standing up to Washington. They’ve announced that they won’t assist the feds in tracking and deporting people who aren’t criminals. It’s a poke in Washington’s eye, and I love it.

So if California can poke Washington’s eye like that, why do we islanders get lambasted as ingrates every time we challenge Washington? Maybe we should make the CNMI a sanctuary commonwealth as well. Washington can do what it likes 8,000 miles away, but we’ll do what we need to do here for our own dignity, our own economy, and the workers we need to make it happen.

Washington isn’t a generous uncle handing out free candy and wanting nothing in return. There’s nothing free in life. Too bad many of us here have taken too long to learn that. When we handed over control to Washington in 2009, we shouldn’t have expected free milk and cookies. But many of us did.

Let’s wake up. Let’s assert our own destiny. Let’s do what’s best for our island, and our people, not for politicians 8,000 miles away.

Juan Diego C. Blanco (Special to the Saipan Tribune)

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