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By John S. DelRosario Jr.

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (April 22, 1999 - Saipan Tribune)---U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Republican-California) has defended the Northern Marianas against plans that would strip the islands of duty-free privileges, saying such moves would throw back the CNMI to dependence on federal subsidies like other U.S. territories.

"I strongly disagree that we should single out the CNMI from our other U.S. territories and deny them the duty-free status for trying to find a formula that would enable them to be less dependent on U.S. taxpayers’ grants," Rohrabacher said in his Dear Colleague letter to members of Congress.

His comment stems from statements by Rep. Bob Franks (Republican-New Jersey) concerning the use of the "Made in USA" label in finished garments from the islands, a business practice the latter described as a threat to the apparel industry on the mainland. Franks said tariffs should be imposed on all goods coming from the CNMI.

But Rohrabacher assailed such a proposal for singling out the Commonwealth when, in fact, it is part of the United States political family.

He said, "We are talking about a territory which is, as long as we keep it a territory, part of the United States," and such an arrangement has granted the CNMI "the right to control their immigration laws and operate with a small degree of autonomy, as compared to other U.S. territories which are oppressively dependent on the U.S. taxpayers.

"Under the commonwealth covenant, the economy of those islands has benefited and the standard of living has improved. Garment factories that would never dream of locating in a distant island territory have opened because the CNMI permits the use of visiting workers from the Philippines and Guam," Rohrabacher said.

He underscored that while these foreign workers receive wages below the federal standard, they are protected by U.S. labor laws and receive wages far better than back home. The presence of the garment industry, whose income topped over $1 billion in 1998, has created jobs for the community and other related services, thus, reducing CNMI's dependence on a federal dole-out, he said.

"The islands are better off because there is another source of revenue other than that which can be begged from American taxpayers. This is critically important because the CNMI (is) suffering from the economic decline that affects the entire Asian region," he said.

The slowdown in the tourism economy has made the garment industry a major provider of revenues to the financially-troubled government. In 1997, the sector provided 23 percent of the funds for government operations on top of its contribution to the ports authority and the utility corporation.

Rohrabacher also said that contrary to the claims of some groups, the volume of apparel manufactured in the Northern Marianas and sold in the mainland is "far less than that which comes in every year from foreign competitors with special privileges like Mexico.

"Specifically, only one-half of one percent of all apparel manufactured in the United States – and the CNMI (is) part of the United States – comes from these islands. Furthermore, most of these manufacturers do not use the ‘Made in the USA’ label," he said.

The Commonwealth has been fighting efforts to apply federal immigration, minimum wage and customs laws to the islands in fear this would further hurt the economy at a time of deep economic troubles.

To help the island government thwart federalization, the private sector has formed the Western Pacific Economic Council to oppose the Washington plan.

WPEC is a non-profit organization comprised of the Hotel Association of the Northern Marianas, the CNMI Contractors Association, the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association and the Saipan Chamber of Commerce.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT

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