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By The Tribune Staff

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (February 9, 2000 – Saipan Tribune)---In what had been just a constant threat before, the U.S. Senate on Monday approved, by voice vote, legislation seeking to extend federal immigration laws to the Northern Marianas.

The move paves the way for Congress to alter the self-governing status provided to the Commonwealth under the Covenant agreement, which guarantees local control over immigration and minimum wage standards.

The measure now heads to the U.S. House of Representatives for further review and is expected to draw stiff opposition from Republican members sympathetic to the islands’ conditions.

This is the first time that a federal takeover proposal of the CNMI has reached both houses of the bicameral body. The island government has protested such actions in recent years because of its impact on the local economy.

The voting on Monday (Washington D.C. time) came after the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight of U.S. insular areas like the CNMI, recommended favorably last November for its passage.

Sponsored by Committee Chair Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawai‘i) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the bipartisan measure was amended extensively when the committee unanimously passed it last October 20 despite CNMI's strong opposition.

Although it passed the Senate, it is unlikely to receive favorable action in the House of Representatives following commitments made by its leadership.

In recent years, the most powerful member of the House, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), has repeatedly vowed to block efforts to change the status quo in the CNMI and promised island leaders support against considering federal takeover legislation.

Mr. DeLay and other members of Congress, who visited the island, have contested the image painted by the Clinton administration, which has described the local labor conditions as "sweatshop" and considered the alien workers indentured labor.

Lobbying efforts

With the Senate vote, CNMI leaders and the business community are expected to step up their lobbying efforts to convince the House against considering the legislation.

After its passage, one of the founding fathers of the Covenant lamented that if "We gave up sovereignty for local control over immigration and the minimum wage that they now have seen fit to deny us, perhaps it is time too that the U.S. Senate equally returns and restores our sovereign rights."

Local leaders are preparing to visit Washington to stress the importance of protecting the economic freedom of the CNMI as guaranteed under the Covenant.

S. 1052, one of a host of measures aimed at changing CNMI's self-governing status, seeks automatic implementation of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act in the Commonwealth once it takes effect.

It will, however, allow a nine-year transition period intended to help local businesses like hotels and tourism-related establishments cope with potential adverse economic impacts.

The Senate committee scrapped key provisions that would have provided the CNMI the legal means to contest in the court a federal takeover of its immigration functions based on findings of the U.S. Attorney General under the first draft of the proposal.

Because of the change, the transition period in which to orderly phase in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) was shortened from 10 to nine years, ending Dec. 31, 2009, with up to a 10-year extension for hotel and tourism industries.

Under the proposal, the target implementation will begin one year after its enactment.

Since 1997, there have been moves to strip CNMI control of its immigration, minimum wage and custom standards stemming from its alleged failure to curb the influx of cheap labor from Asian countries -- a move that local officials say will spell the island's economic collapse. (With reports from AP)



By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (February 9, 2000 – Saipan Tribune)---Although saddened by the U.S. Senate's action on the immigration takeover bill, Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio yesterday vowed to continue labor and immigration reforms on the island while trying to appeal for understanding from Washington.

He reiterated that extension of federal immigration laws to the CNMI will curtail both the social and economic future of the Commonwealth as well as neighboring island communities.

Mr. Tenorio, however, did not indicate what specific actions his administration would undertake to block passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of S. 1052, the bill that will automatically apply the Immigration and Nationality Act here once it takes effect.

Local lawmakers have urged the governor to intensify the government's lobbying campaign in Congress in an effort to stave off federal control of the island's immigration, minimum wage and custom standards.

S. 1052, a bipartisan measure, is the first legislation that passed one chamber of the bicameral body in Washington that tacked on amendments to the Covenant, the 20-year old agreement that guarantees self-governing status for the Northern Marianas.

"We are saddened by the action of the U.S. Senate on S. 1052. The CNMI has worked hard over the last two years to reform its labor and immigration system," said Mr. Tenorio in a statement.

"We continue to maintain that the solution to the concerns regarding our system is a federal partnership to increase and strengthen enforcement of federal and local labor and immigration laws," he added.

The Tenorio administration has implemented several reforms since taking office in 1998, including a three-year residency limit for alien workers and a moratorium on the hiring of new temporary workers.

While island officials had stressed these reforms during oversight hearings called by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year, some of the nation's lawmakers have ignored such actions and blamed the CNMI for a continued influx of Asian migrant workers here and worsening labor conditions.

CNMI leaders and the business representatives have repeatedly appealed against imposing federal immigration and minimum wage laws here, warning against the impact of such a move on the economy that relies heavily on nonresident workers due to the small population size of the islands.

According to Mr. Tenorio, if S. 1052 becomes a law, it will deprive the CNMI of the opportunity to control its social and economic future and will have a devastating impact on the local economy and the economies of neighboring island communities.

"We must not let the action of the U.S. Senate on S. 1052 discourage our efforts to reform our labor and immigration system. We must also continue to try to work with the U.S. Congress and the U.S. administration to explain our concerns about the dangers and harms that will result if this bill is signed into law," said the chief executive.

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

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