PRESIDENT CLINTON LETTER LEAVES NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS WONDERING OVER FEDERAL

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TAKEOVER

By Cookie B. Micaller

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (December 31, 1998 - Saipan Tribune)---President Bill Clinton has strongly suggested that Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio has agreed to the planned federal takeover of CNMI's labor and immigration policies.

In a letter dated December 7, the U.S. leader said he was glad that Tenorio has accepted Washington's proposal to apply U.S. laws on immigration and minimum wage to the Northern Marianas -- a plan which the federal government has been pushing because of discontent over the handling of these commonwealth functions by local officials.

"I am pleased that you agreed to work with us on the appropriate application of federal immigration and minimum-wage laws to the commonwealth," Clinton wrote to Tenorio. "We remain willing to consider further measures for a transition to a federal law in light of the economic situation the islands face."

Clinton has asked the commonwealth leader to meet with Edward B. Cohen, his special representative to the Section 902 consultations, when Cohen visits Saipan in January for informal talks with Lt. Gov. Jesus R. Sablan, head of the local panel.

The letter was a follow through to the meeting between Clinton and Tenorio on neighboring Guam in November, when the U.S. leader made a brief stopover en route to Washington after a tour of Asia that took him to Japan and South Korea.

But Tenorio had told reporters after his Guam visit that discussions with the U.S. leader covered possible aid to the Northern Marianas, whose tourism-based economy has been sidelined by the yearlong Asian financial turmoil. He said the issue of federalization was not raised during his brief meeting with Clinton.

The Tribune repeatedly sought the comments of Sablan, who has been Acting Governor since Tenorio left Sunday for Manila, but he did not return the calls.

In an interview Tuesday, Sablan admitted that he was aware of the letter, but said it was inappropriate for him to comment on Clinton's correspondence. "The matter is now with the Governor. I just want to say that this administration is committed to address federal concerns by reforming the local labor and immigration."

House Speaker Diego T. Benavente said in a phone interview yesterday that Clinton's letter was discussed in the last meeting of CNMI's 902 panel. He, however, reserved his comments until the Governor responds to the letter.

A member of the CNMI panel who requested anonymity said local officials were locked in debates two weeks ago whether Tenorio should respond to the letter or not. Some local officials are worried that Clinton's statement might commit the commonwealth to federalization; others held the opinion that the U.S. leader might have misunderstood the position of the administration.

"We're entertaining the thought that Mr. Clinton might have misinterpreted the Governor's appeal for economic assistance. It has always been the position of this administration that a federal takeover will be disastrous to the CNMI economy. And the Governor has made that very clear," said an administration source, who declined to be identified.

It will be recalled that Tenorio told an oversight hearing in Washington last March called by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that his government should be given a chance to reform the local labor and immigration system and that any takeover would have adverse impact on the island economy.

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