CNMI borders a 'security risk'
Lawmaker introduces proposal to apply U.S. immigration laws
By Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno
Pacific Daily News
The latest proposal in Congress to apply U.S. immigration law to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is being pushed forward as a security issue especially in light of the U.S. military buildup on Guam.
The proposal also includes giving the CNMI a non-voting congressional seat similar to what Guam has.
Democratic Rep. Donna Christensen of the U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday introduced legislation that would give the CNMI a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and at the same time extend federal immigration laws in the CNMI. Christensen's H.R. 3079, "The Northern Mariana Islands Immigration, Security, and Labor Act," was drafted with input from the U.S. Interior, Justice, Labor and Homeland Security departments.
Proposals to take away local control over the entry of foreign tourists, workers and investors in the CNMI date back to at least the 1990s.
But unlike previous unsuccessful attempts, the new effort toward federal control of the CNMI's borders takes the argument beyond foreign workers' human rights.
It frames the proposal primarily as a security issue.
"The CNMI needs stability and the Marianas region needs security. This bill makes a leap in that direction," according to a statement from Christensen.
A federal report had mentioned that the lack of U.S. control over the immigration authority in the CNMI could have security-risk implications, for example, to the U.S. military bases on Guam.
Christensen's bill also makes reference to the military buildup "in the Marianas region."
The military is investing about $15 billion on Guam, including the proposed:
Base for 8,000 U.S. Marines and 9,000 of their relatives who will be relocated from Okinawa.
Waterfront facilities to construct a nuclear carrier-capable berth at the Navy base.
U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Defense Task Force, consisting of approximately 630 service members and 950 family members.
"The U.S. military's reinvestment in the Marianas region should make everyone want to make these islands secure," according to Christensen.
Christensen introduced the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives on the eve of a hearing on similar legislation in the U.S. Senate.
Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka sponsored the Senate bill that also proposes to apply U.S. immigration law in the CNMI.
CNMI Gov. Benigno Fitial and leaders of the CNMI business community were scheduled to testify at the Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Akaka's bill.
The hearing was scheduled to take place last night Guam time.
CNMI government: Survival at stake
The CNMI governor's Press Secretary Charles P. Reyes Jr. said the local government welcomes the proposal for a CNMI delegate seat.
But giving the CNMI a delegate seat is not a fair tradeoff to taking local immigration control away from the commonwealth government, Reyes said.
"What good would it do if we have a delegate ... if our economy is in a shambles?" Reyes asked.
In the governor's testimony to the Senate subcommittee hearing, he's expected to say that the Northern Marianas economy is at its weakest point in decades, and applying U.S. immigration laws at this point would further devastate the local economy.
CNMI tourist arrivals are down 40 percent, and its garment industry is declining because of competition from lower-cost factories overseas.
The Northern Marianas tourism and garment industries rely on imported labor, primarily from the Philippines and China.
The CNMI business sector already is reeling from declining sales and increasing cost of doing business as a result of the recent federally required minimum wage increases and power rate increases, Reyes said.
In Fitial's testimony, he's expected to say it's not true that the CNMI has "weak" border controls, as mentioned in the Senate bill's summary.
"More stringent than ... Guam"
"In many respects the entrance requirements for the commonwealth are more stringent than those in place for Guam, or other U.S. destinations," according to Fitial's testimony.
"The CNMI and federal immigration authorities have cooperated effectively in many substantial trafficking and other immigration violations in recent years," according to the governor's prepared testimony.
"We share the desire ... to protect the borders of the United States, including the commonwealth," according to Fitial.
Instead of a federal takeover, Fitial proposes giving local authorities more training and other forms of assistance.
"We are prepared to invite oversight by the Department of Homeland Security. We are ready and eager to have the additional safeguards that would come from utilization of federal databases to ensure that no alien entering the commonwealth presents a security risk to the United States," according to Fitial.
Worker exodus feared
The CNMI government also opposes Akaka's proposal to basically allow foreign workers who have been in the CNMI for at least five years to gain residency status.
The CNMI government argues that, by giving foreign workers a path to green-card residency status, the workers will leave the CNMI "for the greater range of jobs and wages in Guam or the (U.S. mainland)."
If the foreign workers leave after having worked in the CNMI for five years, Fitial stated, "it will be unlikely that these positions can be filled with suitable replacements from the local resident workforce in the near term."
Christensen said her bill provides for a "real opportunity ... to address past abuses and unpredictable immigration policies that did not result in a healthy and productive CNMI economy."