IMMIGRATION, LABOR, TRADE PROBLEMS PERSIST IN MARIANAS: FEDERAL REPORT SEES LOCAL

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OFFICE OF INSULAR AFFAIRS U.S. Department of the Interior Washington, D.C.

NEWS RELEASE December 30, 1998

"REFORMS" AS INADEQUATE

The underlying immigration, labor, and trade problems of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) remain as troublesome as ever, despite a year’s worth of reforms set in motion by the recently-elected Governor of the islands, according to a federal report issued today.

"The Administration continues to be concerned about the CNMI’s heavy and unhealthy dependence upon an indentured alien worker program and on trade loopholes to expand its economy. As a result of this reliance, the labor, immigration and law enforcement problems in the CNMI continue. Of continuing concern is the emergence of serious secondary problems such as worker exploitation and ineffective border control, which are symptomatic of the CNMI’s labor and immigration policies," the report states.

The document is the Fourth Annual Report of the Federal-CNMI Initiative on Labor, Immigration, and Law-Enforcement which was issued by the Clinton Administration today. The Initiative was set in motion by Congress four years ago to address problems within the CNMI, a group of islands just north of Guam in the Western Pacific. The CNMI is a U.S. territory, but has, at the moment, control of its own immigration and minimum wage policies.

Under these policies "The CNMI has experienced a self-imposed explosive population growth of about 250 percent in the decade and a half from 1980 to 1995 with the total population growth from 17,000 to 60,000… A startling 91 percent of the jobs in the private sector are held by temporary alien workers and more are arriving daily even though unemployment and poverty rates among locally-born U.S. citizens area very high, 14.2 percent and 35 percent respectively."

While the Federal Government acknowledges the reform efforts of Governor Pedro P. Tenorio, elected in the fall of 1997, "these efforts have done nothing about the three basic problems in the CNMI," according to Allen P. Stayman, Director of the Office of Insular Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior. He said the failures are:

"1. to reduce the local economy’s dependency on temporary foreign workers;

"2. to reduce the local economy’s dependency on transitory trade loopholes which are based on local control of immigration and minimum wage laws and which allow the transplanted Asian garment industry to ship a billion dollars worth of garments to the United States duty-free, quota-free and to unfairly use the "Made in the USA" label; and

"3. a failure on the part of the CNMI government to agree to the full implementation of the Covenant, the document that established the ground rules for the relationship between the CNMI and the Federal government. The Covenant envisions the eventual application of the normal immigration and minimum wage laws to the islands, but the CNMI has refused to move ahead, or even to discuss a transition period."

As a result of the minimal potential Federal involvement in the local labor market, there have been numerous media reports (Reader’s Digest, Time, Philadelphia Inquirer, ABC-TV’s "20/20," etc.) regarding sweatshop working and living conditions, discrimination against pregnant workers (including some reports of coerced abortions and deportations back to the Peoples Republic of China), as well as wide-spread statements than alien workers must pay middlemen from $3,000 to $7,000 to secure jobs that, at best, pay $3.15 an hour.

As four Cabinet officers (the Attorney-General, and the Secretaries of Commerce, Labor and Interior) wrote to the Vice President in October "for close to 15 years -- through the Reagan and Bush Administration and now during the Clinton Administration -- federal officials have expressed deep concern about the CNMI’s growing dependence on indentured alien labor paid at unfairly low minimum wages to build its economy. In the past five years we have found that conditions have deteriorated . . . including failure to pay wages, poor living, poor living and working conditions, even incidence of 'hidden' contracts forbidding the exercise of political and religious rights."

The report re-affirmed the Administration’s determination to support legislation which would apply the normal immigration and minimum wage laws to the islands, after a substantial transition period. The legislation would also require that goods made in the Marianas would be eligible for duty-and quota-free entry into the United States only if 50 percent of the work was done by U.S. citizen labor. The departing Congress did not pass such legislation, although a bill dealing with these issues was reported out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in the summer of 1998.

As to the work of the local government, the report states: "Immediately before and after the Senate hearing in March 1998 the CNMI began to enforce local immigration and labor laws through aggressive raids and inspections of garment factories, night clubs and construction projects and to step-up deportations and prosecutions of overstaying non-resident workers."

The report concluded, however, that: "While the new Governor’s promises are well-intentioned, there continue to be serious concerns about the depth, efficacy and longevity of local reform efforts." In the recent past local laws designed to increase the minimum wage or reduce the number of alien workers have been repealed, or otherwise vitiated , months or years later.

(NOTE: The full text of the report can be secured by phoning David North in Washington at (202) 208-3003 or calling Jeff Schorr in Saipan at (670) 234-8861; the full text will also be on the OIA website by Jan. 4; http://www.doi.gov/oia.)

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