Congress Pushes Controls Over Marianas
Filed at 3:47 a.m. ET
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress is trying again to exert more control over the Northern Marianas, this time minus the interference of jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who for years dissuaded lawmakers from tinkering with the troubled Pacific islands.
Legislation that could clear the House in December would apply federal immigration and labor rules to the U.S. Commonwealth of The Northern Mariana Islands, which in the past three decades of local control has been tainted with charges of sweatshop and human trafficking abuses.
The bill is opposed by commonwealth Gov. Benigno Fitial, who says it ignores recent improvements in labor standards and could cripple attempts to revive the islands' depressed economy.
Over the past decade lawmakers have introduced several dozen bills addressing the Northern Marianas' immigration and labor practices and its right to use ''Made in the USA'' labels on garments made in factories employing poorly paid, poorly treated Chinese, Philippine and other Asian workers.
The lawmakers have little to show for their efforts. The lack of success was partly the work of Abramoff, now serving a six-year prison term on unrelated fraud charges.
The lobbyist received millions of dollars from the Marianas government to keep Washington at bay. He arranged trips to the 14-island chain for prominent lawmakers, including then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. DeLay returned from a 1997 trip to Saipan, the main island, praising its clothing factories and saying he believed they should keep their exemptions from U.S. labor law.
The Marianas, claimed by Magellan for Spain in 1521, went from Japanese to U.S. control after World War II. The Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, took off from the Marianas island of Tinian.
The House bill, which cleared the Natural Resources Committee last month on a voice vote, extends federal immigration law to the commonwealth and creates a federally run guest-worker program that would eventually end foreign worker permits. Currently, up to 20,000 of the estimated 65,000 people on the islands are foreign nationals. Under the covenant of commonwealth approved in 1975, those native to the islands are U.S. citizens.
The bill would also give the Northern Marianas a delegate, with limited voting powers, in the House. Currently the House has delegates from the neighboring island of Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
The legislation follows up on a U.S. national minimum wage hike last spring that raised the minimum wage in the Northern Marianas from $3.05 to $3.55, with plans for further increases in coming years.
''This bill nails the coffin shut on the Abramoff era of undue political influence in the Congress,'' Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said after the committee vote.
''We were naive at that time,'' the commonwealth's elected representative to Washington, Pedro Tenorio, said in an interview. ''We ended up paying lobbyists to defend us and as a consequence we got black eyes left and right.''
Tenorio, a strong supporter of the legislation, said the people of the Northern Marianas are proud and loyal Americans. Federalizing its immigration policy would help the commonwealth become a more integral part of the United States, he said.
The Bush administration backs the immigration provision as a means to prevent Saipan from becoming an entry point for terrorists and human smugglers, particularly as the Pentagon prepares to move some of its military personnel and facilities from Japan to Guam and the Northern Marianas.
But Fitial and his allies still oppose the legislation and have hired more GOP-connected lobbyists to make their case. Trent Duffy, a former White House deputy press secretary who co-founded the lobbying firm HDMK, said they are arguing the bill could throw thousands of people out of work, scare away investors and ruin the islands' fragile economy.
Proponents, he said, ''are using the ghost of Jack Abramoff to push this bill along.''
Testifying at a House hearing last August, Fitial said turning over immigration and guest-worker policies to bureaucrats living 8,500 miles away doesn't make sense.
''No Northern Marianas governor will be able to make the commitments necessary to attract investment to the commonwealth from predominantly Japanese, Korean and other Pacific Rim companies,'' he said.
He urged lawmakers to wait for a study, expected to be completed next spring, assessing the economic impact of the legislation. He said the current bill doesn't reflect recent successes in ending labor abuses and reducing reliance on foreign workers.
The islands are in a precarious economic state. The garment industry, which produced $1 billion worth of goods in 1999, is nearly defunct because China entered the World Trade Organization and can now sell its clothes at lower prices in the U.S. Tourism is down and government revenues have declined by a third over the past decade.
The commonwealth is now looking to Korean golf course and hotel investors, as well as English-language schools for foreign students, to get its economy back on track.
The bill is H.R. 3079.
The Commonwealth Of The Northern Marianas Island (CMNI) was a poster child for the culture of corruption of the Tom Delay/Denny Hastert years. Allegations of sweatshop labor and sexual trafficking were swirling around the CMNI for many years. The very first victim of a suspect Federal District Attorney firing was in Guam. That DA was investigating possible wrong doing of Jack Abramoff's clients.
Like Guam the CMNI is heavily dependent on tourism for its survival. Both Guam and the CMNI got hurt by the Asian economic collapse of the 1990's. The economy is very fragile on both islands, so much depends on the tourist trade. However economics is a poor excuse for letting sweat-shops remain on the island. It is an even poorer excuse for the continuation of sex trafficking and prostitution that was also part and parcel of what was going on in the CNMI a few years back. The sooner the bill passes the better it will be for all.