Non-US Citizens Should Serve on Juries

Students Share Views on the Covenant

March 27, 2008

One thing I will always remember about teaching in the CNMI, is that a disproportionate number of students were natural public speakers and skilled debaters. There are many opportunities provided by the schools and government agencies to showcase the views and talents of these future leaders.

On Covenant Day, March 26th, the CNMI Humanities Council sponsored a debate where top students argued whether or not non-US citizens should serve on CNMI juries. This topic caught my interest because I have argued for years that the guest workers should be allowed to serve on juries.

Marianas High School student, Rachel Reyes won the Covenant Day debate. The Marianas Variety story states:

"During the debate, Rachel Reyes said the non-inclusion of the CNMI’s large alien population in jury selections taints the jury’s partiality.

“Although U.S. laws restrict non-citizens from serving on juries, the seating of alien juries does not involve an infraction of the U.S. Constitution,” she said. “And so, here, where trial by jury is statutory, the line of action calls for a change of the law. Since the U.S. Constitution does not outline the qualifications of jurors, determining qualifications fall within our jurisdiction.”

Rachel Reyes cited the 1895 case of Kohl v. Lehlback in New Jersey to support her argument.

“Over half of the CNMI population is comprised of non-citizens,” she said. “There is a tragedy and a joy in this fact. The tragedy is that the very Covenant that built our identity — the CNMI — was specifically constructed to maintain the CNMI’s control over its immigration and labor laws for fear that U.S. immigration laws would drown out and threaten the indigenous population.”

Good for Rachel!

A Passionate Speech by Another Student

A friend sent me this powerful and moving speech by Cyd Xyrene Gojar Tribiana, who was a 12th grader at Mount Carmel School when he won the 23rd Attorney General's Cup Speech Competition held May 4, 2007, at the CNMI Supreme Court. The topic was "Should the CNMI renegotiate the Covenant to establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in political union with the U.S?" The following is the text of his winning speech:

The Covenant: The bond between parent and child

My name is Cyd Xyrene Gojar Tribiana and I am a Filipino.

When I was selected to represent my school in this competition, my classmates had their doubts, my teachers had their doubts; I had my doubts, and perhaps some of you today have your doubts.

After all, I'm not Chamorro, I'm not Carolinian, I'm not even a U. S. citizen. What right do I, a Filipino, an outsider, have, to talk about the Covenant?

The answer started almost 15 years ago when my family migrated to Saipan. I started school at Sister Remedios, and after 12 long years, I am about to graduate from Mount Carmel School. My family is here, my friends are here, the culture and community that I love is here. And whenever I visit the Philippines, I always look forward to coming back to Saipan. I look forward to coming home.

So, for me, the Covenant is more than just a document. Its provisions created the conditions that brought me here. The Covenant is the very reason why I am standing here before you today. Because of the Covenant, I call the CNMI home, and I want what's best for my home, even if it means personal sacrifice. I would sacrifice as much for these islands, as I would for my own family.

In fact, when I think about the Covenant, I think about family. The Covenant is like the relationship between a parent and a child. When the Covenant was signed in 1975, our islands were in the infant stages of self-government, whereas the United States was reaching adulthood with its bicentennial. Today, we, the child, are reaching political adolescence. And like an adolescent, we often question our parents, and they, in turn, often question us. Today's question is no different: Should we renegotiate the Covenant? I say no.

There is no denying that today, our relationship with the United States is strained. But, just as parents and children should not break the bond that ties them, we should not break the bond of the Covenant. Instead, we must renegotiate the trust upon which that Covenant was built. In other words, we must affirm the Covenant.

As we affirm the Covenant, we must remember that the birth of the Covenant was one of those rare moments in history when great men rose to the great challenges of their time. Out of the aftermath of World War II, our people and our land were devastated. And after hundreds of years of colonial rule, our islands were finally given the chance to govern themselves. Given that opportunity, our people wanted to be a part of the United States. Against the wishes of the United Nations, our founding fathers took control of our fate and carved a new path. They looked to Guam and saw the progress made there, where family and friends became U. S. citizens, where children were given a better education, where the economy was developing, and where the legislature had the power to make their own laws. The founding fathers wanted those things for their islands. They wanted a better life for their people.

That is how these small islands came to the table with a world superpower to negotiate their future. Thus, on February 15, 1975, when the Covenant was signed, the Northern Marianas secured a historically unique political relationship, one that provided for local self-governance under the umbrella of the United States.

The Covenant today stands as a lasting testament to the wisdom and foresight of our founding fathers. We must honor that legacy by honoring the Covenant. It would be foolish, however, to ignore the current crisis we are in. Like the difficult relationship that many parents experience with adolescent children, our relationship with the United States is strained. We have both made mistakes, and if we are to rebuild trust between us, we must face our mistakes.

For our part, our first mistake was to hire a lobbyist, which undermined Section 902 of the Covenant, and betrayed the Covenant's spirit of cooperation. Our second mistake was failing to raise the local minimum wage, which has driven local workers away from the private sector and into a bloated public sector. Our third and worst mistake has been to neglect the major problems with our labor and immigration system. We have failed to adequately train our local workforce and have grown almost addicted to cheap foreign labor. Furthermore, we have not taken good care of guest workers whose blood, sweat, and tears have helped build the prosperity of our islands. David Cohen commented on this in his recent testimony before Congress, referring to “a large class of politically powerless foreign employees populating the lower tier of a two-tier economy.” We can no longer deny that inequality or sugarcoat it with the plea that we're doing our best. Our best simply hasn't been good enough.

These mistakes of ours have justifiably caught the attention and concern of the United States. However, the U.S. has made its fair share of mistakes. Their first mistake was to deny us an adequate voice in Congress. As our Resident Representative to Washington, Pete A. Tenorio argued in his testimony before Congress, “I think that it is a matter of democratic principles that the CNMI be afforded the right of representation before Congress.” But this lack of representation has not hindered our patriotism. Even without any say in the decision to go to war in Iraq, our men and women have served their country. And in my opinion, it is a dishonor to the memory of Eddie Chen, Wilgene Lieto, Derrence Jack, Jesse Castro, Adam Quitugua Emul, and Leeroy Camacho that some of the rights and freedoms for which they fought for are denied to their own family, friends, and children.

A second mistake was to subject us to the whims of partisan politics. Granted, by hiring a lobbyist, we share in the blame. But that does not excuse politicians like Nancy Pelosi from dragging us through partisan bickering as part of her political witch hunt. We may be small islands, but might should not make right.

The third and worst mistake made by the United States has been to neglect the unique nature of our islands. As David Cohen has argued, “A better future for the CNMI cannot be imposed unilaterally from Washington D. C., ignoring the insights, wisdom, and aspirations of those to whom this future belongs.”

These mistakes from both sides have threatened our unique relationship. But I am not here today to dwell on the mistakes of the past. Rather, I am here to urge all of us to move ahead by first acknowledging our mistakes. Like a rebellious adolescent child, we have misused and abused the power of self-governance entrusted to us. We have been irresponsible and have denied it for too long. It's time for us to grow up.

And like stubborn parents, the United States has ignored and neglected us. Now, like overbearing parents, they are trying to force us to do what they think is right, when, instead, they should help us decide, for ourselves, what is right. That would teach us the true meaning of mature self-governance.

In the end, what this all means is this: Rather than renegotiate the Covenant, we must renegotiate the trust upon which that Covenant is based. For, as I mentioned earlier, just as a parent and a child should not abandon each other, the United States of America and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands must not abandon each other.

Earlier, I shared with you that the Covenant is the very reason why I am here today. Well unfortunately, because of recent threats to the Covenant, I may have no choice but to abandon my home. You see, my mother worked for the garment industry - that is, until five months ago, when one of Saipan's leading garment manufacturers decided to close its doors. So next month, my whole family will return to the Philippines for good.

Whenever I think of leaving, it tears me up inside, because I know that once I set foot on that airplane, I will have to say goodbye to these islands that I call home. So, as I prepare to leave, I ask you for one favor: Do everything you can to keep these islands the unique, diverse, and beautiful place that the Covenant enables them to be. I ask that you honor, protect, and cherish the Covenant. Hold it close to your heart, as I hold my islands close to mine.

Thank you and farewell.