CONGRESSMAN HEEDS CNMI ‘FEDERALIZATION’ CONCERNS

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U.S. Rep. Rahall and group leaves Saipan for Guam

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, August 11, 2009) - U.S. House Natural Resources Committee chair Rep. Nick Rahall II (D-WV) and the rest of the congressional delegation left Saipan yesterday with an assurance that the concerns raised by CNMI leaders and community members on federalization "will be taken into consideration," including those of the visa waiver program and immigration status for foreign workers.

Rahall made it clear his committee-which has jurisdiction over insular areas-will take its lead from the CNMI’s first non-voting delegate, Rep. Gregorio Kilili Sablan, on federalization.

"It is our effort to strike a balance here and to do what is necessary to help fulfill our responsibility to the CNMI," he said.

In a news briefing yesterday at the Pacific Islands Club before the congressional delegation headed for Guam, Sablan said it is important to include China and Russia in the CNMI-Guam tourist visa waiver program.

Rep. Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU), chair of the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Fisheries, Oceans and Wildlife, said Guam supports the visa waiver program.

She said Rahall’s visit speaks of the importance placed by the committee on issues affecting the insular areas.

With Congress having 441 members, Bordallo said it is a challenge to get everyone interested in small insular areas that, in many cases, are not treated the same way as states and other jurisdictions.

No to further delay

Sablan also reiterated his statement that he does not want any further delay in the Nov. 28 implementation of Public Law 110-229 or the federalization law.

A separate statement from Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, who met with the Rahall delegation yesterday morning, said he supports extending the implementation of federal immigration rules by one year since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has yet to come up with draft regulations for investor and worker visas.

Fitial said this should allow for a federal visa waiver for the CNMI’s China and Russia tourism markets.

But Sablan said yesterday that he met with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last week, and was told that DHS will release the regulations concerning the implementation of federalization in two to three weeks.

He said there has been some "movements" within DHS as a result of pressure from Bordallo’s subcommittee, the congressional delegation visit to Saipan in July, and others.

Rahall’s congressional delegation, which arrived on Saturday afternoon and left yesterday afternoon, included Sablan, Bordallo, U.S. Virgin Islands Rep. Donna Christensen, South Carolina Rep. Henry Brown, and American Samoa Rep. Eni Faleomavaega.

With the exemption of Faleomavaega, the members of the delegation held a news briefing yesterday, right after meeting with the Saipan Chamber of Commerce.

Brown, who visited Saipan for the first time, also spoke of the United States’ commitment to the islands because of the men and women who lost their lives here during World War II.

Rahall, who is also vice chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said documented foreign workers’ request for improved immigration will be taken into consideration.

"I think certainly their feelings and their comments and suggestions will be taken into consideration, yes," he said.

Rahall, Christensen and Sablan attended Sunday’s peaceful assembly of at least a thousand community members, mostly foreign workers, to hear directly from them their concerns about federalization.

Christensen was here two years ago when her then subcommittee held a field hearing on the original bill that became the basis for the CNMI federalization section of P.L. 11-229. She said they are still committed to supporting the economy of the CNMI.

Sablan invited Rahall and the rest of the delegation to come to the CNMI to hear firsthand from many individuals the impact of policies from Washington, D.C., including federalization.

The delegation recognized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s approval of their fact-finding mission to the CNMI, as well as to American Samoa, Palau and Guam.

Rahall, Christensen, Bordallo and Brown said they’re grateful for the hospitality shown by the CNMI during their brief stay on Saipan.

Rahall and Christensen repeatedly said that Sablan "has done a tremendous job in his first year as the delegate from the CNMI."

Fitial thanked Rahall and the delegation for visiting and listening to CNMI concerns.

"I am very pleased to learn of the increasing legislative support for the CNMI-Guam visa waiver issue, and I look forward to more positive communications with key federal policymakers and better relations with our federal government," he said.

Fitial hosted a dinner for the delegation on Sunday night. On Monday morning, they had breakfast with members of the CNMI Legislature.

That was followed by a courtesy call on the governor, and a meeting with mayors.

Fitial, in a statement, said he and his Cabinet members covered a variety of topics with the visiting delegation, including the vulnerability of the CNMI economy and its ability to sustain further federal wage hikes, the visa waiver issue, and DHS’ readiness to fully implement U.S. immigration law in the Commonwealth.

At the meeting, Fitial sought the federal government’s assistance for the CNMI’s pressing health care needs, including the hiring of qualified doctors and medical professionals. Fitial also asked for federal funds for health care and for continued access to medical professionals under the new federal immigration rules.

Rahall said they also met with officials from DHS, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Social Security office, Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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