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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (Dec. 30, 1999 – Saipan Tribune)---Lawmakers yesterday dilly-dallied on legislation seeking to restrict the stay of Freely Associated States (FAS) citizens in the Northern Marianas because of fears that it may strain relations with neighboring Micronesian islands and lead to a decline in the labor pool coming from the region.

The proposed law sparked emotional discussion in the House of Representatives over the strong historical and cultural ties with peoples from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Palau and the Marshall Islands, which together form the FAS under the Compact of Free Association agreement with the United States, allowing them free entry to any U.S. soil.

Sponsored by Rep. Melvin O. Faisao, House Bill 11-294 -- or the FAS Habitual Residency Act -- aims to provide a mechanism by which the CNMI government can track the number of Micronesians residing on the islands, as well as guidelines on who can enter the Commonwealth.

But House Speaker Diego T. Benavente opposed the measure, which he said would only create friction between the CNMI and the other islands in the region and cut off family ties, as many residents here have relatives living in the Freely Associated States.

Noting that federal regulations restricting entry of FAS nationals into the U.S. and its territories will no longer be pursued by Washington, he stressed the CNMI should follow suit and scrap the local plan.

"While it does not put in place complete restrictions, the importance of family ties is [at stake]. This particular legislation would restrict their ability to bring in their families," Mr. Benavente said at yesterday's session.

He also gave assurances that the local government had already addressed the problems before, when there was an influx of Micronesians who were employed in the garment industry, to meet the 20 percent local workforce requirement.

"I ask that we defer action on this in the absence of findings [requiring such restrictions] but to maintain the importance of our relations with our neighbors," added the Speaker.

Reciprocal action

Proponents of the bill, however, suggested that putting in place these restrictions could be one way to force the independent states, particularly the FSM, to allow free entry there for CNMI citizens.

Under the present system, only Palau grants that privilege, while the FSM limits CNMI citizens' stay to two weeks subject to several conditions.

Supporters also believe the measure will reduce social problems associated with accommodating FAS nationals who are not working and end up as recipients of public assistance.

"We are not out to get rid of the people who are contributing to the economy, but those who are taking advantage of the situation, those who are not looking for jobs," said Majority Floor Leader Ana S. Teregeyo.

According to Rep. Heinz S. Hofschneider, FAS nationals do not pose a big impact on the local infrastructure as they only number around 3,000. He compared this to 23,000 Filipinos -- by far, the largest ethnic group here.

Citing recent studies, he added that more than half of the overall number of people arrested in the CNMI are Filipinos, while only a much smaller fraction comes from neighboring islands.

"We're talking about limiting Micronesians for the purpose of easing their impact," Mr. Hofschneider told his colleagues.

The Commonwealth government has estimated costs of more than $28 million paid from its own coffers over the past two years alone in hosting FAS citizens. It has been asking Washington to reimburse these expenditures for the past several years.

Several government agencies also had overwhelmingly backed the bill, noting that a big portion of its services have been directed toward FAS nationals who, although non immigrants, are also qualified to receive benefits granted only to indigenous people and U.S. citizens on the island, such as education, housing and medical care.

Non-resident workers are not eligible for any of these benefits, including medical care, which are being shouldered by their employers.

CNMI interests

"If I were to include my emotional ties with Micronesians, then I will vote no," Ms. Teregeyo explained. "My position here is what is best for the Commonwealth. Let's look at the ramifications of the bill."

Because of the differences and the likelihood that it may die, Rep. Oscar M. Babauta pushed for deferring voting on the measure while the House refines some provisions.

The current version took two committees more than a year to fine-tune.

Introduced in September 1998, HB 11-294 is the first attempt by the government to address mounting problems spawned by the unrestricted entry of FAS citizens as part of their privilege under the Compact as well as a response to proposed federal regulations that now apparently will not be applicable here.

CNMI has no policy on their habitual residency or to deter and discourage the abuse of such status, such as restricting entry of those engaging in criminal activities or becoming a public charge.

According to a House committee report endorsing the proposal, it will not forbid Micronesians to establish residency in the Commonwealth and will not discriminate against them regarding employment or business opportunities.

Several Micronesian governments, particularly the Republic of Palau, have opposed the CNMI proposal because of the discriminatory conditions it will impose on their citizens.

They have instead urged the Commonwealth to lobby Washington to fulfill its promise in the Compact to defray the costs of providing services to their people, such as housing, health and education.

The accord, due to expire next year for the Marshalls and the FSM, has come under close scrutiny from wealthier Pacific islands like Guam, Hawai‘i and the CNMI after the federal government reneged on its commitment.

Under the proposed law, the island government will screen these people to determine their eligibility under a list of requirements, including criminal records and health standards.

It will also restrict free entry to FAS citizens who are not full-time students, lawful dependents of a gainfully employed relative or active members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

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

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