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By Gemma Q. Cassas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Dec. 13) – The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday passed a measure that will federalize the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands immigration system and create a congressional delegate seat for the islands.

To become law, H.R. 3079 has to be passed by the U.S. Senate and signed by President Bush. It will take effect a year after its enactment.

U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.V., said the measure "will help to tighten our borders against smugglers and terrorists who seek to gain access to the mainland through the territories."

David Cohen, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for insular affairs, said although the nonimmigrant provision was removed from H.R. 3079, "guest workers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands at the time of enactment will at least be able to serve out the terms of their contracts, and would presumably be eligible to participate in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands-only guest worker program (under the federalization law). Those that are eligible for either nonimmigrant or immigrant visas under U.S. law could of course apply for those visas."

The measure will also allow qualified guest workers to seek admission to Guam, which is projected to experience a labor shortage due to the military build-up there.

Rahall, in a statement, said with "enactment of this legislation, the dismal and degrading era of slave labor, forced prostitution, and other horrific worker abuses by employers of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands garment industry will be put to rest. We should all loathe that such a system was allowed to flourish, and that a corrupt lobbyist was able to stand in the way of reforms needed to secure for these workers the basic human rights we all deserve."

Rahall was referring to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was hired by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands government and garment industry to block federalization measures in the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress.

Congresswoman Donna Christensen, D-V.I., said the bill, which she authored, "would provide a stable immigration policy to rebuild the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands economy and give the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands representation in Congress."

She added, "It is no secret that over the last 20 years, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands came under great criticism for its immigration policies which left the territory with a nationwide, if not also an international, reputation — making this legislation necessary on several fronts."

But Gov. Benigno R. Fitial said the bill is bad for the local economy.

"Today, we face a potentially devastating development for the commonwealth, our citizens, and our future: the complete takeover of much of our authority to govern ourselves, grow our economy, protect our workers, and manage our own affairs," he said in a statement.

He said H.R. 3079 would kill efforts to improve the islands’ economy.

"Let me explain why so many of us are so concerned about this legislation. First, it will destroy our economy, which we all know is already on life support. It will make it more difficult for us to pursue the economic recovery that is just now taking hold," the governor said.

"Second, it denies our people — U.S. citizens — the same measure of self-government enjoyed elsewhere in the United States. It does this by imposing a federal command economy which would be run by bureaucrats in Washington — many of whom couldn’t point to our islands on a world map," he added and noted that the U.S. Congress will pass legislation based "on inaccurate data, unfair perceptions, and outright falsehoods."

American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are the only U.S. jurisdictions where federal immigration law does not apply.

Marianas Variety

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