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By Cookie B. Micaller

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (January 21, 1999 - Saipan Tribune)---Meetings between the Northern Marianas and the United States continued yesterday with discussions focusing on reforms put in place by the commonwealth to improve its immigration, labor, and customs policies.

Negotiators from both governments spent the whole morning of the second day of informal talks exchanging views while Labor and Immigration Secretary Mark D. Zachares briefed Washington officials about the efforts being undertaken by the local government to curb entry of guest workers and address labor problems.

The continued dependence of the island economy on guest workers is troubling the U.S., the commonwealth’s main economic provider, because of a host of problems spawned by employing non-residents. Discontent on the way local officials address these concerns has led to a White House proposal seeking to take over local control on immigration and labor.

"We had some good dialogs going between representatives from both sides," Zachares told reporters. "I feel we may have explained some misconceptions or misrepresentations in the Interior report."

Much of the concern of U.S. officials, led by President Bill Clinton’s special representative Edward B. Cohen, were on enforcement of labor hearing judgments, according to Zachares.

Zachares said his department has done an "adequate job" in addressing this, citing the 42 civil cases filed against employers and plans to beef up the legal staff of the agency.

Among the package of reforms Zachares presented to the 902 meeting are the moratorium on the hiring of non-resident workers, a policy which has brought down to 24,435, or 5 percent, the number of guest workers for the first time in CNMI’s history, and the limited immunity program that has so far encouraged 1,352 overstays, mostly Chinese and Filipinos, to legalize their status. Under the ban on hiring implemented in March, he said only close to 300 new employees have been allowed to work for companies exempted from the moratorium.

"I am hoping they would recognize the reforms CNMI has undertaken. The basic premise that I put forward is reform is happening, it is a reality," Zachares said, but underscored the need to invite federal agencies to assist local officials in correcting loopholes in the system.

In the same meeting, Jo Mafnas, acting director for customs, disputed reports prepared by the Office of Insular Affairs alleging illegal transshipment activities in CNMI.

Mafnas said in an interview he told White House representatives to the talks to check a report prepared by the U.S. Customs which denies OIA’s allegations of illegal transshipment.

"My suggestion is for them to get a copy of the report from the U.S. Customs and compare it with the OIA’s report," Mafnas said. "The reports contradict each other."

According to Cohen, the presentation was "fascinating." He did not elaborate.

Most members of the negotiating panels brushed aside questions from reporters. Some government officials and representatives of the business community who held meetings with the 902 team refused to give comments, saying they were instructed not to disclose to media details of the discussion.

Yesterday, the panels met separately with Governor Pedro P. Tenorio’s financial advisors, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, and the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands.

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

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