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SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, June 18) – A bipartisan bill federalizing the Commonwealth's immigration was introduced in the U.S. Senate on Friday.

Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Akaka sponsored the legislation as it was drafted by the U.S. Office of Insular Affairs.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski signed on as co-sponsors.

All of the sponsors, except Murkowski, are members of the ruling Democratic Party.

The measure has been numbered S. 1634 and titled as "a bill to implement further the Act approving the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America, and for other purposes."

The Senate read the bill twice Friday, June 15, 2007 before referring it to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources, where the bill will be reviewed and possibly revised. The same committee, led by Chairman Jeff Bingaman and Ranking Member Pete Domenici, had asked OIA to draft the immigration bill.

"That is a significant development," said press secretary Charles P. Reyes Jr. "It's troublesome because we've repeatedly asked that a study be done before any action is taken. We hoped Congress would consider our economic vulnerability and give this piece of legislation some thoughtful analysis. Unfortunately, our calls were not given much credence."

Earlier this month, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial flew to Hawaii to ask the state's senators for help with the federalization of local immigration. Fitial met with Akaka and the chief of staff for Inouye.

The CNMI government is against the proposed federal takeover of CNMI immigration, particularly a one-time grandfather provision in the bill that allows foreigners who have been long-term workers in the CNMI to apply for permanent residence.

Under the OIA-drafted bill, a five-year nonimmigrant visa will be provided to nonresidents who have been legally employed in the CNMI for at least five years. To be eligible, an applicant should also pass a criminal and medical background check.

Data from the CNMI Labor and Immigration Identification System show that there are 7,944 guest workers who have been employed in the Commonwealth for five to nine consecutive years. This figure does not include long-term nonresidents who have worked here for 10 years or more.

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