U.S. Representative Pushes To Keep CNMI Labor Office Open

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George Miller says Ombudsman necessary to handle complaints

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, July 5, 2013) – The senior Democrat on the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), took the cudgels once again for foreign workers in the CNMI who he said will be in jeopardy of suffering more abuses without a plan in place to ensure that labor and immigration complaints are handled properly.

This is in response to plans by the U.S. Department of the Interior to close the Labor Ombudsman’s Office in the CNMI at the end of fiscal year 2013 after 14 years in operation.

Miller is a former chair and ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, which has oversight over insular areas such as the CNMI.

He wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on June 27 to raise concerns about the Interior’s decision to close the Ombudsman’s Office.

Miller said he’s not reassured by the claims of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs that the Ombudsman’s Office’s operations "would be successfully devolved onto the office of the CNMI Field Representative and other local and federal agencies."

"The plans for this transition are preliminary at best and do not inspire confidence that these cases will be handled with the due diligence and care they rightly deserve," Miller told Jewell in a one-page letter, a copy of which was obtained by Saipan Tribune yesterday.

Former and current federal officials have also written to Interior, as well as other agencies, to either rethink or hone the planned closure of the Ombudsman’s Office.

Florida-based human rights activist and former CNMI teacher Wendy Doromal’s online petition to keep the ombudsman’s office open is now only 24 signatures shy of its target of 2,000 signatures.

Doromal had said if the decision to close the Ombudsman’s Office was actually made because OIA failed to plan for the expiration of the ombudsman’s term appointment, "that suggests that perhaps OIA, not the Ombudsma’n Office, is the office in need of serious changes."

Rene Reyes, founding president of the Marianas Advocates for Humanitarian Affairs Ltd., said yesterday that MAHAL has also launched a signature drive to keep the Ombudsman’s Office beyond fiscal year 2013. He said they have so far gathered more than 1,000 signatures.

"We are urging all concerned agencies to halt the closure of the Ombudsman’s Office. We are also calling on guest workers to sign the petition," he told Saipan Tribune.

Reyes said that Filipino workers alone, which comprise the bulk of foreign workers in the CNMI, have already endured the closure of the Philippine Consulate General on Saipan.

"We can’t afford to lose another agency that deals with assisting victims of abuses including human trafficking, labor and immigration issues," Reyes added.

13 sets of questions

Miller said he supports the concerns raised on May 31 by U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) regarding the decision of the Interior acting assistant secretary for insular areas to close the Ombudsman’s Office in the CNMI.

Wyden also chairs the U.S. Senate committee that has oversight over insular areas such as the CNMI.

"Without a plan in place to ensure that labor and immigration complaints are handled properly, many foreign workers will be in jeopardy of suffering more abuses," Miller said.

Since its establishment in 1999, the Ombudsman’s Office has handled numerous cases dealing with the long-standing pattern of mistreatment of alien workers, he said.

Miller also said that for years, the Ombudsman’s Office has helped refer to proper CNMI and federal agencies thousands of foreign workers who were victims of labor abuses, human trafficking, sex trafficking, and illegal recruitment, among other things.

The office also helped victims of criminal acts such as rape, assault and battery, false imprisonment and torture, he added.

"As the former chair and ranking member of the Committee on Natural Resources with a great deal of experience overseeing labor and immigration issues in the CNMI, I share Senator Wyden’s concerns regarding the potential closure of the Ombudsman’s Office and I ask that answers be provided to the questions in his attached letter," Miller told Jewell.

Wyden, in his May 31 letter, asked Jewell 13 sets of questions.

For example, the senator asked Jewell how the Interior’s OIA plans to spend the $250,000 that President Barack Obama allocated for the operation of the Ombudsman’s Office in 2014.

Wyden asked about OIA’s plan to fill the vacant CNMI field representative position left by Jeff Schorr in August 2012, and whether there is a plan to have that person absorb duties to assist aliens who are victims of immigration, labor, law enforcement and trafficking-in persons violations.

The senator gave the Interior secretary 30 days from May 31 to answer 13 questions and provide a detailed plan to ensure that the agency has a continuing capability to carry out the Ombudsman’s Office’s essential functions. No response has been received so far.

Wyden expressed "deep disappointment" with the Interior’s decision to close the Ombudsman’s Office in the CNMI "without a plan in place to ensure that the important work of the office is continued" and "without consulting congressional committees and guest workers who depend upon the office for advocacy and services."

Miller and Wyden’s concerns about abuses and issues involving guest workers are documented once again in a newly released U.S. State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report that tags the CNMI as a "destination and transit location for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking."

The State Department said that during the reporting period, the Labor Ombudsman’s Office reopened an investigation of a case of fraud in foreign labor contracting from 2009 "and identified 10 more human trafficking cases" in the CNMI.

Earlier, Interior’s OIA said the Ombudsman’s Office closure is a result of a "dramatic shift" in the office’s work—"from working on serious labor and trafficking violations to assisting individual alien workers with more routine immigration and labor issues."

However, as former ombudsman James Benedetto pointed out, the Ombudsman’s Office data itself shows that nearly three times as many human trafficking victims sought help from the office under federal control than those who came during the pre-federalization period, and roughly the same number of labor complaints has been received by the Ombudsman’s Office as from 1999 to 2008.

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