CNMI GROUP OPPOSES ‘FEDERALIZATION’ OF GOVERNMENT

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SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, January 29) – The over 200 people who took part in a peaceful rally organized by the group "Our Commonwealth" on Friday afternoon were encouraged to prepare for the Feb. 24 visit to Saipan of two U.S. Senate staffers who will be here to gather more input for a bill that would federalize the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) immigration system.

"Our Commonwealth" wants the U.S. Congress to open a dialogue and consult first with the CNMI before passing measures that affect the islands, including an increase in the federal minimum wage to US$7.25 an hour and a takeover of local immigration.

Historian Sam McPhetres, one of the speakers at the Friday rally held at the American Memorial Park amphitheater, urged Our Commonwealth to do their homework by learning all the facts, coming up with a plan, and then working on that plan in dealing with the proposal of the U.S. Congress to extend federal laws to the CNMI.

"I would urge you all to be prepared with the facts and not get lost in the emotions. You may still have an opportunity to influence the bill but you must demonstrate that you understand what is involved," McPhetres said.

The visit of Senate staffers Allen Stayman and Josh Johnson will take place after the Feb. 8 oversight hearings on the CNMI by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which has oversight over the CNMI and other U.S. insular areas.

"The bill that will be under consideration is the same bill that was passed by the Senate unanimously in year 2000 — S. 1052," said McPhetres.

A large banner on stage reads: "Nobody is going to care about your well-being if they don’t know who you are," quoting Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs David Cohen. Our Commonwealth added the phrase, "We exist."

Frederick P. Deleon Guerrero, one of the leaders of Our Commonwealth, told Variety in an interview after the rally that the group will prepare for the U.S. Senate staffers’ visit.

"It’s our intention to meet with them and share our concerns…and come to a better understanding. Everyone here comes from different backgrounds in life and I think we have a strong representation of people here," he said, adding that they have been preparing for meetings like this.

Besides McPhetres, there were eight other speakers at the rally that started at around 4:45 p.m.

Right before darkness fell, the group marched toward American Memorial Park’s Flag Circle for a group photo which, along with a video footage, will be sent to Washington, D.C. "so they can hear and see our intention to have a dialogue with them," the group said.

As an American flag fluttered in the wind behind them around 6:30 p.m., members of Our Commonwealth sang the Commonwealth Anthem and held banners that read, among other things, "Honor the spirit of the Covenant," "Have you talked with us lately?" "What studies have been done?" and "Unique economy, unique criteria."

The banners were meant for the U.S. Congress which, according to Our Commonwealth, should consult first with the CNMI before passing legislation affecting the islands.

‘Our expectations were met’

Deleon Guerrero said that Our Commonwealth’s expectations for Friday’s peaceful rally were "met very well."

Among those expectations were for people to learn about the highlights of the islands’ Covenant with the U.S., heighten awareness on the U.S. Congress’ actions that will have an impact on the CNMI, and learn what the community can do to get the U.S. Congress to listen.

Deleon Guerrero said he’s thankful for the over 200 people who joined the Our Commonwealth rally.

"I’m very satisfied with those who came because every person that came will go out and tell 10 other people about this. And the main thing is getting the message out…And as we progress, we expect more," he said.

On Jan. 10, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Rep. George Miller’s bill that would increase the federal minimum wage to US$7.25 an hour.

Miller, D-Calif., included the CNMI in the bill. The CNMI’s minimum wage has been US$3.05 an hour since 1996.

Deleon Guerrero told Variety that Our Commonwealth believes that the CNMI minimum wage should be increased and that there’s a need to reform local immigration.

"But we also believe that it cannot be done some 9,000 miles away without any input from the CNMI. As I said earlier, this is our house. If it’s broken, we will fix it. If it’s dirty, we’ll clean it," he said.

McPhetres reminded the group that the U.S. Constitution protects the right to free speech.

"To exercise that right responsibly and in a well-informed way is one of the most sacred obligations of an American citizen. Again, I commend you all for wanting to become involved. Above all, remember that this is an election year," he added.

McPhetres also talked about the Covenant negotiations, the intent of its drafters, and the history of the exercise of free speech in the CNMI which is stronger now than before with the creation of groups like Our Commonwealth, Beautify CNMI!, and Tina Sablan’s forum group which are not afraid of talking or taking a position on issues affecting them.

Signature campaign

Our Commonwealth has started gathering signatures for a petition to be sent soon to Washington, D.C., specifically to ask the U.S. Senate to open a dialogue with the CNMI before acting on wage, labor and immigration measures affecting the commonwealth.

"We’d like to have as many signatures as possible," Deleon Guerrero said.

Community members who were not able to show up at Our Commonwealth’s rally can still sign the petition by meeting with the group or by sending an e-mail to ourcommonwealth@gmail.com.

Vicente Santos, one of the founding fathers of the Covenant, said during the rally that given the closures of garment factories, the pullout of airlines and the overall economic downturn, "this is not the right time to talk about raising the minimum wage to US$7.25 an hour."

He said there should be consultation as guaranteed by the Covenant signed by the NMI with the U.S.

"We gave up our sovereignty but not our self-governance. We hope the U.S. Senate will slow down in (taking action) on the minimum wage hike bill," said Santos.

He added that the U.S. Congress itself took hundreds of years to raise its federal minimum wage to over US$5 an hour but it took the CNMI only some 20 years to raise the wage to US$3.05 an hour.

Besides Santos, McPhetres, and Fred P. Deleon Guerrero, the other speakers at Friday’s rally were grade school student Jackie Ogumoro who read a poem, Roberta Guerrero, Lino Olopai, former Youth Congress Speaker L.J. Castro, Angelo Villagomez of Beautify CNMI!, and Kodep Ogomuro-Uludong, one of the organizers of Our Commonwealth.

Nicolette Villagomez, 17, a student at Mount Carmel School, helped organize 12 students from her school to participate in the rally.

"We came here to show our support because we believe that the federal government should consider our economy before passing the federal minimum wage increase bill…We want them to hear us...We also want to tell the youth that it’s now our time to make a difference," Villagomez said.

On Jan. 5, the group Dekada also held a peaceful rally in front of Horiguchi Building to renew the call for improved immigration status for long staying nonresident workers in the CNMI and to show support for legislation increasing the minimum wage to US$7.25 an hour. The Dekada rally, attended by some 500 people, said the local government’s inaction resulted in the federal government’s new proposals to take over the local labor and immigration systems.

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