Tonight the new season of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars will premiere to the delight of millions of fans. Among the contestants in the show’s ninth season is Republican politician Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader who hails from Sugar Land, Texas. In 2006 DeLay departed from the U.S. Congress in disgrace after he was indicted for conspiring to violate campaign finance laws. His connections to convicted felon and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff are legendary. Two of Tom DeLay’s former staffers were indicted in the Abramoff scandal. The Abramoff –DeLay deals involving casinos, Russian oil and money laundering are well known and are said to be under investigation. Tom DeLay is probably the first morally bankrupt person chosen to be a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.
ABC is a pimp cashing in on Tom's notoriety to boast ratings. Their selection of DeLay as a contestant on their show is a slap in the face to every innocent man, woman and, yes, child who suffered abuses as foreign contract workers or victims of human trafficking in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. (CNMI). Perhaps ABC failed to consider those victims that DeLay left in his wake when he was dancing in the House.
From 1984 to 1995 when I lived in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) I witnessed the terrible labor and human rights abuses of contract workers who came from their homelands to work in the United States. They came from the Philippines, China, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Russia, Pakistan, and other Asian countries. They sold their land, houses and businesses to pay up to $7,000 in recruitment fees for a chance to live the American dream. But too many of these workers lived a nightmare instead.
For years my husband and I assisted workers to seek refuge from abusive employers and helped them to file cases to seek justice. (Although not much justice was handed out then.) The workers who sought our help suffered from workplace abuses such as unpaid wages, indentured servitude, housing violations, contract violations, and discrimination. They suffered from criminal acts such as human trafficking, rape, torture, false imprisonment, assault and battery, and even murder. They fell victim to human rights abuses such as coerced abortion, forced prostitution and being denied the right to practice their religion. For the 20 years that I have had the honor and privilege of being an advocate for the disenfranchised guest workers of the CNMI I have regarded Tom DeLay with deep disdain.
Not a month after DeLay and the junketers left Saipan, I was contracted by the Clinton Administration to lead a seven-member team of attorneys and human rights advocates to the CNMI to investigate and document current conditions of the guest workers. For three weeks in January and February 1998, we interviewed and filmed hundreds of foreign workers, touring barracks, factories, clubs and other work places. The deplorable living and working conditions, the intensity of the abuses and the escalation of unprovoked acts of violence being inflicted upon the workers stunned me. These were conditions that any visitor to the CNMI would plainly see. Yet, incredibly, Tom DeLay claimed there were no abuses! He called those who worked to expose the abuses and appeal for reform, liars. He sidestepped justice, continuing his jive and spin.
While Abramoff and the CNMI had millions of dollars to back up their campaign of denial, I continued to fight back with only the truth to back my own campaign for justice. Finally, a CNMI reform bill, the Northern Mariana Islands Implementation Act (S 1052) was introduced by Republican Senator Frank Murkowski and Democrat Senator Daniel Akaka in 1999. It unanimously passed the Senate in February 2000. However, Tom DeLay blocked that legislation in the House, again obstructing justice for the thousands of guest workers. He bragged about blocking it.
On June 17, 2006 Nousher Jaheti, a former CNMI victim of human trafficking, and I were interviewed by NPR in Washington, DC about DeLay’s congressional departure and his Abramoff-CNMI connections. My contempt for DeLay surfaced as I listened to Nousher retell his story. To me, Nousher represents the thousands upon thousands of cheated foreign contract workers who are hard-working, humble, good-intentioned, sincere and pure-hearted. Listen to this man's words:
YDSTIE: Guest workers were lured to the Marianas by recruiters in countries like China, the Philippines and Bangladesh, who told them they were going to the United States. The recruiters charged workers around $5,000 for the trip. Nashir Jahidi(ph) is one of the workers Wendy Doromal befriended. He came to Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands from Bangladesh by way of the Philippines. He says when he got on the plane, he thought he was going to America.
Mr. NASHIR JAHIDI (Ex-Worker): And not only me, there was some people that recruiter exactly told him that he can be going to Los Angeles by train from Saipan. So when I hear that the plane, you know, the host or somebody's saying they were about to land in Saipan and I when I looked out the window and I saw it's like blue water everywhere and small island and I was like, how?
YDSTIE: So you thought that you were going to be going to California or somewhere on the U.S. mainland?
Mr. JAHIDI: Not only me, most of the worker. They were surprised when they see the United States flag and the local island flag and we used the U.S. dollar, we used the U.S. stamp and everything, then people understand that this is only a small island. There is no way that you have the opportunity like what's in the United States.
YDSTIE: Garment manufacturers were attracted to the Marianas, which had become a U.S. commonwealth in 1976, because clothes made there could be labeled made in the U.S.A. and didn't face import quotas or duties. But despite flying the U.S. flag, the islands were exempt from many U.S. labor and immigration standards. As the abuses that Wendy Doromal helped uncover came to light, garment manufacturers there were sanctioned by the U.S. Labor Department. Then in the mid-1990s when it looked like Congress might force the Marianas to adopt U.S. Labor and Immigration laws, the island's government took action. It hired lobbyist Jack Abramoff to protect its special status. Abramoff was paid millions for his work. Here he is in a 1999 NPR story arguing that there were no abuses.
Mr. JACK ABRAMOFF (Lobbyist): In the Northern Marianas they're scrupulously careful to make sure that no one, if possible, is mistreated in any way, just because of the incredible microscope these people are under.
YDSTIE: But in 1998 Interior Department investigation, which Wendy Doromal had worked on, had documented continued abuses of guest workers on the islands. Abramoff dismissed the allegations.
Mr. ABRAMOFF: Most of the workers on the island would be violently upset if they understood what these self-proclaimed helpers of the workers are up to, which is in essence destroying their jobs and destroying their families' opportunities.
YDSTIE: Abramoff didn't only depend on his own persuasive ability though, he flew more than a hundred congressional aides and members of Congress to the island on fact-finding trips that usually involved a look at a showcase factory and then beach time, snorkeling and golf. Tom DeLay went on one of those trips. Here he is at a New Year's Eve dinner on the Marianas in 1997, congratulating the island's officials and business leaders.
Representative TOM DELAY (Republican, Texas): You are a shining light for what is happening in the Republican Party and you represent everything that is good about what we're trying to do in America, in leading the world in the free market system.
YDSTIE: That tape was from an ABC 20/20 investigative story that aired in 1998. And Global Survival Network, a human rights group, used a hidden microphone to capture the head of the island's biggest garment firm, a man named Willie Tan, boasting that DeLay had assured him his business would be protected.
Mr. WILLIE TAN (Textile Executive): I'm a very good friend of Tom DeLay.
YDSTIE: Tan starts by saying he's a very good friend of Tom DeLay's and that DeLay told him that as a member of the House Republican leadership, he controlled the schedule and would make sure reform legislation didn't get a hearing.
Mr. TAN: So Tom told me, forget it, Willie, no chance.
YDSTIE: In fact, through his House leadership position, DeLay made sure the House never considered any legislation dealing with abuses in the Marianas, even though one bill had 228 co-sponsors. By contrast, the Senate unanimously passed legislation aimed at curbing some of the abuses. Wendy Doromal testified at the Senate hearings. She says Tom DeLay had to be aware of the problems.
Ms. DOROMAL: He must've known what was going on, on the ground at that time. And if he didn't, I have to think, why would someone not know, why would they not know? Only because they wanted to ignore it.
YDSTIE: Federal investigators are looking for a money trail. They've subpoenaed the records of a non-profit group with ties to DeLay that got over $500,000 from Willie Tan's firm. The non-profit was run by DeLay's former chief of staff and spiritual advisor, Ed Buckham. Buckham also employed DeLay's wife, Christine. Now that DeLay has resigned, Democrats have reduced legislation to address the labor and immigration abuses in the Marianas. In the past few years, the garment industry on the island has shrunk as U.S. import quotas have been lifted and the made in the U.S.A. label has become less valuable. But now there are reports of labor abuses involving two other booming industries on the islands, gambling and entertainment, including the sex trade. Attorneys for Abramoff and DeLay declined to comment for this story.
That legislation was the foundation for reform legislation that would finally pass in May 2008 as PL 110-229, a law to apply federal immigration laws to the CNMI. It would have passed eight years earlier if the obstructionists like DeLay had not blocked it. His actions perpetuated the suffering of thousands of victims of labor and human rights abuses as more workers were abused under the corrupt and unjust system.
Some of the most abused of all victims I met were the minors and young women trafficked from the Philippines and other Asian countries and forced to be strippers and prostitutes. Most were recruited as waitresses for clubs and bars, but once in the CNMI they were forced to perform lewd sex acts and dances on stage and were sold as prostitutes. After the customers left, they were locked in dismal barracks. One woman told me that she slept on the dance floor. These were unwilling dancers, some who were never paid, and some who danced in their tears.
On February 8, 2007, I attended the Senate Hearing concerning immigration issues in CNMI. I was struck as Kyleen, a young Filipina woman, testified about her terrifying experience as a victim of human trafficking for Saipan’s sex trade. Her heart-wrenching testimony reminded me of another testimony from the 1998 Senate Hearing I also attended. At that hearing, a young 14-year-old Filipina girl, "Katrina", testified with the same horrific story. I had to wonder would Kyleen have been testifying if Congress had acted when Katrina had testified? Would Katrina have testified if Congress had acted in 1995 when I had testified detailing the same story on behalf of dozens of other trafficked young women? We can blame Jack Abramoff and the CNMI government, but we must also blame the members of Congress like Tom DeLay who were their defenders and conspirators.
Because of this ethically challenged congressman’s actions more dancers and trafficked club workers followed in Katrina’s shoes. Hundreds more. I interviewed some of them on my 1997 and 1998 visits to the CNMI. I heard the same sickening story over and over from different lips.
So tonight if you tune in to watch Tom DeLay’s moves on the dance floor, I hope you will remember Katrina, Kyleen and the hundreds of other reluctant dancers who suffered in Saipan because of DeLay’s moves on the House floor. Think of the sweet girl who danced in her tears.
It seems ironic that ABC, the network that used their 20/20 program to expose the DeLay-Abramoff-CNMI connection a decade ago is now featuring this evil-doer in their ads to promote another one of their television shows. As for me, I won’t be watching Dancing with the Stars. ABC is promoting a conspirator who plotted to block justice and contributed to the perpetuation of labor and human rights abuses in the CNMI. The only time I will tune in to watch Tom DeLay dance is if he is doing the jail house rock.
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