WHITE HOUSE UNDECIDED ON MARIANAS FEDERALIZATION

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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Mariana Variety, June 6) - The Bush administration has no position on the yet to be introduced bill to federalize the local immigration system, according to visiting U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

Even though his department drafted the bill, as requested by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, it doesn’t mean they are endorsing the measure.

Kempthorne said Interior wants to help the Northern Marianas rise above its economic challenges while "supporting fairness for long-term guest workers."

He added, "I take very seriously the role of advocating for the CNMI and the other territories within the administration. Although the administration does not yet have a position on the Senate bill concerning federalization of immigration control in the Northern Marianas, the department did a very good job of balancing the interest of different groups in the Northern Marianas."

Kempthorne said progress has been made in prosecuting cases of human trafficking in the Northern Marianas, one of the major concerns of the Democratic leadership of the U.S. Congress, but more must be done.

"We want to see continued progress in that area. We support fairness for long-term guest workers. If guest workers lose status because of changes in laws in the Northern Marianas or because of economic downturns, the federal government can still give them status," he said.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs David Cohen noted the ongoing debate on the national immigration bill, which he described as "very fluid and very dynamic."

"We don’t know what will happen with the U.S. immigration reform bill…. The national bill may or may not have provisions that relate specifically to the CNMI -- if they do, then there’s a possibility that everything will be dealt within that bill. Otherwise, some may still perceive a need to address CNMI issues in a separate bill," Cohen said.

The bottom line, according to Cohen is that some officials in Washington, D.C. want to give long-term guest workers from the Northern Marianas the flexibility to work in other U.S. areas such as Guam and Hawai‘i, which is the same privilege provided to Micronesians.

Cohen said, "When we provide drafting service, it does not imply the endorsement of the Interior or the administration. We did work very conscientiously to consult with our colleagues in the federal government to try to provide the Senate that took into account a lot of interests in a fair and balanced fashion. But when we submit the bill it does not carry the endorsement of the Interior or the administration."

He added, "We want people to stay in the CNMI because employers in the CNMI value their contributions -- if they don’t they can go to Hawai‘i, they can go to Guam or other places. We understand there is a tradeoff there. We didn’t want people to stay in the CNMI because they have nowhere else to go."

Kempthorne said his office is dedicated to help the Pacific island governments associated with the U.S. to develop a skilled labor pool.

"There is the need for skilled workers in this region," he said.

The visiting Interior officials met with Governor Benigno R. Fitial, key lawmakers and the representatives of the local business community.

The administration remains opposed to the federalization of the local immigration system.

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