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By Cookie B. Micaller

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (January 7, 1999 - Saipan Tribune)---The Saipan Chamber of Commerce (SCC) has lashed out at the Office of Insular Affairs for accusing the Northern Marianas of ignoring calls to reform its labor and immigration, saying it was another attempt of OIA to hasten the federal takeover.

The Chamber said in a letter to OIA Director Allen P. Stayman that his comments were baseless and failed to account for the Commonwealth's efforts in addressing concerns of the federal government stemming from the handling of labor and immigration policies by local officials.

In the fourth annual report on the CNMI-Federal Initiative on Labor, Immigration and Law Enforcement, it (OIA) says reforms undertaken by the NMI government remain inadequate and have led to strings of problems, from loopholes in expanding the economy to abuses against foreign workers.

The report was released ahead of the scheduled visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton's special representative to the Section 902 consultations, Edward B. Cohen, on January 18, to resume the long-delayed bilateral talks.

Clinton's top aide said he would like to discuss measures that will lead to transition to federal immigration and minimum wage laws in line with the U.S. leader's commitment to the governor.

The business group said that "no matter what progress is achieved or positive (actions) are taken by the CNMI with respect to the desired reforms. . . (it) will not mean a thing to your office nor will they alter your relentless agenda for a federal takeover. Such is unfortunate and prejudicial to the best interest of the CNMI."

In defending the government, the Chamber cited measures put in place by Tenorio to deal with labor and immigration problems left unattended by past administrations.

According to businessmen, OIA, which has jurisdiction over the Northern Marianas and other insular areas, has deliberately ignored the progress made by local officials to correct the problems.

SCC said the indefinite moratorium on the hiring of guest employees, ban of entry of certain nationals onto the islands and deportation of illegal workers have been implemented as ways of easing worries of the federal government over the growing presence of non-residents here.

While such policies have adversely affected local business operations, the Chamber noted these have substantially reduced the number of foreign workers in the commonwealth.

The growing dependence of the Northern Marianas on foreign labor has led to the influx of non-resident workers, mostly Asians, whose number over the years have taken a huge leap. This number has gradually decreased as businesses, over 1,080 of them, closed shop last year. It is expected that more will follow suit as the crisis hits rock bottom this year.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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