SEN. MURKOWSKI BILL TACKLES CNMI IMMIGRATION

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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (May 20, 1999 – Saipan Tribune)---U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski's (R-Alaska) latest immigration takeover proposal provides a 10-year transition period to allow for a gradual reduction in the dependency by the Northern Marianas on an alien work force. It also will phase in a system that will grant permanent residency to some foreigners.

In addition, it includes a special provision to exempt the local hotel industry from the 10-year time restriction, allowing a five-year extension of easy access to a foreign labor pool. The extension will ensure an adequate number of workers in the sector, according to the bill introduced last week in the U.S. Senate.

Although it is a modified version of an earlier proposal that had sought application of U.S. laws on both local immigration and the minimum wage, the measure shed the one-year grace period for fact-finding given to the U.S. Attorney General, which has lapsed since the filing of the previous bill last year.

Murkowski, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which has oversight of U.S. insular areas, maintained his move was prompted by findings that the Commonwealth continues to fail in handling its immigration.

"Although the legislation contains the one-year grace period contained in the Committee amendment from the last Congress, the one year has expired," he said in his letter to the Senate President.

"The record of the Northern Marianas, and the status of local legislation, will determine whether and on what terms federal laws should be extended. The action earlier this year by the Northern Marianas to lift the moratorium on entry permits for new workers is particularly troubling."

Island leaders pledged in an oversight hearing in March last year in Washington, D.C. to undertake reforms in efforts to thwart attempts by the Congress to strip the CNMI of powers over its labor and immigration standards.

Commonwealth officials have opposed the new bipartisan measure, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawai’i) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), warning against a disastrous impact on the local economy, which is largely dependent on tourism and garment manufacturing.

It joins the growing list of proposals in Congress that seek to apply federal immigration, customs and minimum wage laws in the CNMI amid discontent on the way these Commonwealth functions are being handled by local officials.

Under Murkowski's bill, the Immigration and Nationality Act will be fully extended to the island at the end of the transition period, subject to a few exemptions such as the special provision for hotel workers.

While it will not forbid the CNMI from hiring temporary alien workers, the U.S. Secretary of Labor will gradually phase out their number each year until the possibility is completely eliminated at the end of the transition.

These workers, however, will be restricted to the Northern Marianas and will not be eligible to apply for immigrant visas unless they are petitioned by their U.S. citizen relatives or sponsored by their employers.

Under these conditions, they will be prohibited from seeking employment in any other part of the United States during the first five years of their admission, after which they will be granted permanent residency.

Considered a strong supporter of the CNMI, Murkowski has said further amendments to the proposal will be considered once the Senate committee conducts a hearing.

The island government is expected to oppose the measure, according to local officials.

"I support as much local authority and control as is possible. There are certain functions, however, that only the federal government can effectively perform," the Senator said.

"There are also certain rights that every individual who works and resides in the United States should expect to be guaranteed. This legislation will provide an opportunity for the Committee to see that those responsibilities are performed and that those rights are protected," he added.

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