April 2, 2008
No one would argue that the United States is a nation of immigrants. Yet, today guest worker programs and the immigration debate has created controversy, fueled hatred, and spun debate in all corners of our country, and across the ocean to our territories. The issue of legal foreign guest workers has become blurred with the issue of illegal immigrants. The defeat of the Dream Act, the defeat of S.1348, Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, and even the removal of the grandfathering provision from CNMI federalization legislation demonstrates the effectiveness of nativists, supremacists, hate radio hosts, politicians, and lobbyists in campaigning against status for immigrants and their children.
However, there is evidence that the tide is changing. Immigration rights groups, human rights advocates, religious leaders, and individuals of conscience are pushing back and making inroads. Recent Republican exit polls in the Florida primary showed that only 16% of voters polled considered immigration as the most important issue facing this country. (The question wasn't on the Democrat exit poll.)
The Statue of Liberty stands in New York City Harbor with her back to the shores of the United States. She faces the sea with her torch raised to the world as if to beckon and welcome those coming to our nation seeking freedom, liberty, and the American dream. The statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886. This was a time when the United States accepted immigrants with open arms. Between 1881 and 1920 about 23.5 million immigrants settled in the United States. My ancestors were among them.
The Statue of Liberty was a gift from the people of France who raised money primarily through voluntary donations to show their friendship to the people of the United States; to express their appreciation to a country that respected and upheld individual liberty. After the statue’s arrival in the U.S., the American people raised money through voluntary donations to build the pedestal upon which it would stand on Bedloe’s Island in New York City Harbor. Among the fund raisers was an art auction. American writers including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and others sent original work to be auctioned to raise funds for the pedestal. But it was Emma Lazurus, a poet and an advocate for disenfranchised immigrants, who wrote the sonnet that sold for $1,500 and would later be inscribed on a plaque at the base of the statue after her death. Her poem is a tribute to our country’s willingness to share our wealth and opportunities with those seeking a better life:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
As the poem suggests, the U.S. was once a country that openly welcomed immigrants and foreign laborers knowing that they strengthened our nation through their labor, skills, and talents. It was a country that appreciated their contributions in creating the diverse fabric that makes the American culture.
One hundred twenty years later, some Americans fear that guest workers and immigrants are taking their jobs, straining infrastructures, taxing health care programs, and contributing to criminal activity in their communities. Wasn't that the premise of Resolution 80 that opposed the provision to grant FAS-type status to the long-term guest workers of the CNMI? The Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States are dispelling these myths through Justice for Immigrants, an educational advocacy campaign for immigration reform. This page gets the facts out with supportive documentation and data.
The fears that immigrants and guest workers negatively impact our society have been promoted extensively and relentlessly through the American media. CNN's Lou Dobbs, hosts a nightly anti-immigrant show that is biased and mean-spirited. Think Progress quoted Speaker Nancy Pelosi claiming that conservative hate radio programs, which make up 91% of the talk radio show airwaves, "hijacked the Senate immigration bill with xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric."
Here are some statements that Think Progress attributed to the anti-immigrant, anti-guest worker radio hosts:
Michael Savage -"The the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) "the Ku Klux Klan of the Hispanic people."
Bill O'Rielly - "There is a segment of the population who, like The New York Times, wants to see some restrictions on migration in the Senate immigration bill eased or modified hate America, and they hate it because it's run primarily by white, Christian men. Let me repeat that. America is run primarily by white, Christian men, and there is a segment of our population who hates that, despises that power structure."
Neal Boortz - "On the June 18 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Neal Boortz advocated building a "double fence along the Mexican border, and stop the damn invasion." Boortz continued: "I don't care if Mexicans pile up against that fence like tumbleweeds in the Santa Ana winds in Southern California. Let 'em. You know, then just run a couple of taco trucks up and down the line, and somebody's gonna be a millionaire out of that."
Let's not forget hate radio's kings, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The CNMI has it own anti-guest federal immigration radio and television hosts with Harry Blalock and John Gonzalez. Yet, it appears that all of these commentators just have the microphone that gives them the ability to speak loudly and reach millions. Their message does not reflect the thinking of the majority of the American population. As The New York Times indicated, these commentators do not speak for most Americans who support comprehensive immigration reform:
"More than half of those who favor the guest worker program say the workers should be allowed to apply to become permanent immigrants and eventually American citizens if they maintain a strong work history and commit no crimes. About a third of those who favored the program disagree, saying guest workers should be required to return home after their temporary period."
The immigration debate in America has helped to put a face on the guest workers and immigrants. For decades many Americans did not even think about the people who harvested their crops, constructed their buildings, and served in hundreds of essential jobs that they, themselves, would not want to perform. Now they do, and increasingly they support giving green cards to long-term guest workers.
I have always believed that green card status is the only status that the United States government should offer any long-term guest worker. This is the status that I have requested in conversations and letters to federal officials, members of the House Natural Resources Committee, and members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to support for the long-term guest workers of the CNMI. Anyone who has come to work on U.S. soil, who has provided his or his labor to advance our society and contribute to the social and economic good of our communities, deserves a pathway to citizenship. It is the only status that is morally, socially, economically, and politically correct. Anything less promotes disenfranchisement and indentured servitude, which does not support the democratic values upon which our nation was founded. Anything less is unAmerican.
In the case of the CNMI the U.S. government, the CNMI government, and representatives of the business community acknowledge that the CNMI needs approximately 18,000 foreign guest workers to provide an adequate workforce. We know that S. 2937 calls for a change to phase out of foreign contract workers under the current CNMI labor and immigration system and convert the guest workers to H-1 or H-2 workers under the federal system. There will be a one-year transition period from the time the bill is signed into law until the time it goes into effect with the U.S. immigration system with special provisions to met the needs of the CNMI. Lynn Knight, HANMI director, was quoted in a Saipan Tribune story this month as saying:
“We are short at least 18,000 employees, now filled by foreign workers,” said Knight. “The math is very, very simple. There's simply not enough local people here to fill all of the jobs.”
The solution is for the federal government to grant the long-term foreign contract workers (those who have lived and worked legally in the CNMI for 5 years or longer) green card status. Many of the long-term guest workers are parents of the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 U.S. citizen children who were born in the CNMI. If these legal guest workers were given green cards, the workforce would become stabilized and an adequate number of skilled workers would be ensured. This plan would give security to the workers and their families, and would provide the best possible solution to grow the economy of the CNMI.
While local plans may provide a temporary solution or be helpful in the year-long transition period from the time S. 2739 is passed until the law goes into effect, local plans cannot provide permanent stability. They would not free the guest workers from disenfranchisement. The CNMI government has no legal authority to provide non-resident workers with permanent status. They can only offer extended contracts or limited stays with an ending date, that may be renewed. (And only if proposed legislation or a constitutional amendment passes.) Additionally,what kind of lasting stability could be provided from a government that continually changes laws, decisions, and policies to perpetuate the maximum exploitation of guest workers? Any meaningful permanent status provided to the long-term guest workers will have to come from the federal government.
When first introduced, H.R. 3079 gave hope to the guest workers that they would finally receive some sort of status, albeit inferior to what they deserved after long years of sacrifice, sweat, and tears in building the CNMI. Yet, members of the House Natural Resources Committee, under pressure from lobbyists and island leaders in the CNMI and Guam, sent the bill out of committee with an amendment removing the provision. When I protested the removal of the status, suggesting that it jeopardized the integrity of the bill, I was told that this bill would establish federal immigration and labor law as a first step, and status for long-term guest workers would follow as the second step. We need to be proactive in reaching members of Congress now to ensure that green card status is what is granted after the federalization bill is signed into law.