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Measure goes to President Bush for signature

By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Mariana Variety, April 30, 2008) - By a vote of 291-117, the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday passed the omnibus package bill that contains provisions to federalize the local immigration system and create a CNMI nonvoting delegate seat in the U.S. Congress.

221 Democrats and 70 Republicans voted in favor of the bill, while 117 Republicans voted against it.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.V., a co-sponsor of the federalization bill, said the legislation will be immediately sent to the White House.

President Bush is expected to sign S.2739 or the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 within 10 days after it is transmitted to his office.

Governor Benigno R. Fitial reiterated his opposition to the federalization bill.

"I am pleased with the enactment of the legislation providing for a Northern Marianas delegate in the House of Representatives," he said in a statement to the Variety. "I am disappointed with the remainder of the legislation and may have further comments on the subject in my state of the commonwealth speech on Friday."

The governor lobbied against the measure which will end his control over local immigration policies.

His administration even hired a Washington-based lobbyist to prevent the bill’s passage.

The local business community is also disappointed but some of its leaders said they saw it coming.

"I expected this," said Juan T. Guerrero, the former president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce whose testimony against the federalization measure in the U.S. Congress angered guest workers who called for a boycott of his businesses.

Guerrero said the "mighty" U.S. Congress can "essentially do what it pleases even if it will hurt the islands’ fragile economy."

"Every effort that the U.S. is doing will hurt the business community," he said. "It’s a combination of factors -- the increase in fuel prices, the impending increase in the minimum wage."

Jim Arenovski, the current president of the chamber, said the business community is ready to move forward once the bill becomes law.

"We knew it was going to happen," he said. "We’re now in a position to work on the rules and regulations (to implement the legislation)."

Rahall commended the House for supporting the measure.

"For too long, abuses took place in the CNMI, and for too long, remedial legislation was held hostage in this body," he said in a statement. "Let this legislation bring forth a new dawn, a start of a new era, and with a delegate to this body, let the voices of the people of the CNMI be heard."

The House passed the bill on Dec. 11, 2007. When it reached the Senate, the measure was lumped into an omnibus package bill, S. 2483, that was not passed due to concerns regarding its gun-related provisions.

S. 2483 was subsequently renumbered -- S. 2739 -- and passed by the Senate on April 10.

It was then sent to the House for its concurrence.

Representative George Miller, D-Calif. and chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, hopes that the measure will "help the CNMI open a new chapter of economic prosperity in compliance with American law."

Miller has been critical of CNMI labor and immigration laws since the early 1990s.

Congresswoman Donna M. Christensen, D-V.I. and chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, praised the passage of the legislation.

She was the chief sponsor of the House federalization bill.

Its approval, she said, "will ensure that employers have the ability to fill jobs, continue vocational training to empower CNMI residents with skills needed to succeed in their economy, foster partnerships with neighboring Guam to diversify the region’s economy, maintain adequate protections for the nonresident guest worker community, and strategically secure the Marianas archipelago."

The second-longest serving member of the House, Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mi., said: "Extending federal immigration law to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands closes the guest worker loophole under which so many were held in modern slavery. The Constitution’s guarantee of freedom must apply everywhere in the United States, no matter how remote."

Conyers chairs the House Judiciary Committee and is also a co-sponsor of the House federalization bill.

Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, said she is pleased that the CNMI will finally have a voice in the U.S. Congress.

"The people of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands will have a greater voice in Congress with the authorization for the election and seating of a delegate to represent them in the House of Representatives," she said.

"I look forward to the day that the delegate from the CNMI is sworn in to the House of Representatives. This is long overdue, and a very important component of this omnibus, consensus bill. I thank Chairwoman Donna Christensen and Chairman Nick Rahall for their leadership in advancing this comprehensive legislation and ensuring the delegate bill was made part of the overall effort," she added.

Former Rota teacher and human rights activist Wendy Doromal is hoping that the change in the islands’ immigration system will result in economic stability.

"This is a law that is long overdue," she said. "Just as I always believed that federalization was inevitable, I also believe that a pathway to citizenship for long-term guest workers is inevitable. It would be in the best interest of all CNMI residents to embrace the change that will provide just and equitable laws for everyone who calls the CNMI home. It is change that will pave the road to a secure future for all of the people who live and work in the CNMI."

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