Unheard No More in the New Year

"Don’t let them tell you that change isn’t possible. It’s just hard, that’s all. You know, this country was founded on a tough, difficult idea — 13 colonies deciding to break off from the most powerful empire on Earth, and then drafting a document — a Declaration of Independence that embodied ideas that had never been tried before: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That’s not an easy idea. And it had to be fought for, inch by inch, year by year. 

The journey we began together was about building a movement for change that endures. It’s about understanding that in America anything is possible if we’re willing to work for it and fight for it, and most of all, believe in it. I need you to keep fighting. I need you to keep working. And I need you to keep believing.”  President Barack Obama, 2010

January 1, 2011

With a year that starts so symmetrically (1-1-11)  it's got to better than the previous year, one of my least favorite in memory. Since 2011 also is the year of the Rabbit, a lucky zodiac sign, I am going to make a surreptitious wager that it will be a good year.

One welcome start would be the publication of DHS's long over-due CNMI Transitional Worker Classification rule. A letter from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to Congressman Gregorio (Kilili) Sablan states that the rule will be released in the first quarter of 2011.

From the letter:
With respect to the CNMI Transitional Worker Visa Classification rule, DHS published an Interim Final Rule on October 27,2009. Following that, as you noted in your letter, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia enjoined that Interim Final Rule in November 2009. CNMI v. United States, 670 F. Supp. 2d 65 (D.D.C. 2009). Subsequently in December 2009, the Department published a notice in the Federal Register, re-opening the comment period for the rule for an additional period of time. Currently, the Final Rule is in the final stages of Departmental clearance. DHS expects to publish the Transitional Worker Visa Classification Final Rule during the first quarter of Calendar Year 2011.
The sooner, the better. All of the uncertainty has had a devastating impact on the lives of the foreign workers and their families.  There isn't a day that goes by that I don't receive an email or phone call from a guest worker inquiring, "Is there any news from DHS?"; questioning, "Should we give up?"; asking,  "Should we apply for jobs in other countries?"; or lamenting, "We are desperate." People who have sacrificed and invested so much for a better future for themselves and their families are understandably reluctant to let the dream die.  They should not have to.

If the DHS is treating this rule like the (CNMI) Nonimmigrant Investor Visa Classification rule that was published on December 20, 2011, then we can expect a detailed analysis of every comment. The Nonimmigrant (foreign investor) rule thoroughly considered the comments and explained why each was considered or rejected. There were 13 comments made regarding that rule.  For the nonimmigrant worker rule there over 100 comments published on the site, and more comments that were submitted via email and postal mail.  I can imagine it is a time-intensive task to weigh each one. My comment, alone, was 12 pages with multiple attachments.

Regarding the issue of permanent resident or U..S. citizenship status for the long-term guest workers, that was removed from PL 110-229 in 2007, in my comment I wrote:
Improved Status for Nonresidents
The April 10, 2008 Senate report stated that one purpose of the legislation that became PL 110-229 is to meet the need for a consistent U.S. immigration policy: “Elements of the CNMI's immigration policy are also simply inconsistent with Federal policies. Among these is the Federal policy that persons admitted into the U.S. to fill permanent jobs do so as immigrants with the ability to become U.S. citizens and full participants in the political process.” To meet this purpose, there must be a direct pathway to citizenship for guest workers under the federal program.

From the Consolidated Natural Resources Act (P.L. 110-299):
"Report on Nonresident Guest Worker Population- The Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Governor of the Commonwealth, shall report to the Congress not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008. The report shall include--
(1) the number of aliens residing in the Commonwealth;
(2) a description of the legal status (under Federal law) of such aliens;
(3) the number of years each alien has been residing in the Commonwealth;
(4) the current and future requirements of the Commonwealth economy for an alien workforce; and
(5) such recommendations to the Congress, as the Secretary may deem appropriate, related to whether or not the Congress should consider permitting lawfully admitted guest workers lawfully residing in the Commonwealth on such enactment date to apply for long-term status under the immigration and nationality laws of the United States."

The Federal Ombudsman’s Office completed an alien registration in December 2009, and the U.S. DOI will prepare a report for Congress. The nonresidents who were legally in the CNMI on November 28, 2009 must be given permanent U.S. status.

Many of the guest workers have lived and worked in the CNMI for 10, 15, even 20 or more years. Hundreds of them have lived and worked in the CNMI for more years than they have lived in their home countries. Some of them came to the CNMI as young adults and they now have children and grandchildren. They consider the CNMI as their home.

The current CNMI guest worker program has allowed guest workers to continually renew their contracts year after year after year, but denied them of any opportunity to adjust to permanent status. Each year that their stay has been lengthened in the CNMI the roots that they have established grow deeper and stronger, yet their status as temporary guest workers remains the same.

The foreign contract workers left their homelands with little except the hope and dreams for a better future and the excitement that they were going to work on U.S. soil. They built quality lives in the CNMI. Many of them no longer have connections to their former homelands. Many of them have no job prospects, no homes and no support systems in the places that they left so long ago. They have spent sweat, tears, and the best years of their lives building the CNMI, performing their jobs honorably and with distinction. They are an important part of the Marianas and the essential members of the community. They belong to churches and social groups; they volunteer in island-wide cleanups and in their children’s schools. Many of them have children who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. They are valuable workers, law-abiding citizens and contributing members of their island home. We call upon you to recommend protection and equal rights to the foreign contract workers and nonresidents who have dedicated their lives to building and developing this U.S. Commonwealth.

In 2000 the U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation that would have provided the nonresidents with status. However a provision for U.S. status did not make it into the final version of the bill that would become part of Public Law 110-229. Even though a provision for permanent status and a pathway to citizenship for nonresidents in the CNMI may be included in future national comprehensive immigration reform legislation, there is no guarantee that such a bill will pass and no need to wait for this national bill. The foreign contract workers in the CNMI are legal guest workers who were invited here to build the economy and infrastructure of the Northern Marianas, and who were allowed to stay, year after year, with no prospect for adjusting to permanent residency let alone a pathway to citizenship. They have a special and urgent situation that was created by a unique and unjust set of CNMI immigration and labor laws.

There is precedent for such relief. In the 1980s, the Virgin Islands and Congress realized that special legislation was needed to prevent the separation of guest workers from their U.S. citizen families. Congress passed a law allowing guest workers in the Virgin Islands to adjust to permanent residency status. Congress should pass a similar law tailored to the unique needs of the CNMI.

It is easy for labor-exporting countries and host countries to view foreign workers as replaceable commodities that serve the economies for the nations concerned. But the guest workers are people; people with families and friends within the community. They are people who have used their needed skills to advance their adopted community economically and socially. For decades, they have been living as a disenfranchised underclass in a two-tiered society under the U. S. flag. They continue to hold out hope that the United States of America will grant them status and allow their families to stay together in the place that they have called home all these years.

Their children, most of whom are U.S. citizens, stay awake at night anxiously contemplating the fate of their parents and the future of their families. They live in fear of being exiled to foreign countries where they cannot speak the language and where they may face limited educational opportunities, a poorer quality of healthcare and a deep plunge in their quality of life as a whole.
Their uncertain status does not make their children less American. Their children are the future of the commonwealth as much as any child who calls the CNMI home, and they deserve to be afforded the same rights and opportunities as any U.S. citizen.

The importance of secure families and a skilled, reliable and stable workforce in the CNMI is essential, especially during these times of extreme social and economic hardship. Granting U.S. permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship to the legal CNMI nonresidents, would ensure that families would not be split apart, businesses would benefit from a stable labor pool of skilled and reliable workers, and the economy would prosper.

The best way to reduce the population of foreign contract workers to zero by 2014 is to give the nonresidents in the CNMI permanent U.S. status and an unobstructed pathway to citizenship. Not only will this solve the problem of a skilled and readily available workforce, but it will also reduce the expenses of running a large guest worker program.

I urgently request that the U.S. government take the next moral and much-needed step to deliver justice in the CNMI by moving quickly to grant the nonresidents permanent U.S. status and a pathway to citizenship.
Will this be the year that the United States government finally rights decades of wrongs that have been committed against the CNMI long-term foreign contract workers? We have been asking for improved status for years, for some of us, for decades.

We need to follow the sentiment of President Obama: "The journey we began together was about building a movement for change that endures. It’s about understanding that in America anything is possible if we’re willing to work for it and fight for it, and most of all, believe in it."

This isn't the time to retreat, grow apathetic, become discouraged, or allow intimidation by those who are trying to silence the voices of the alien workers for their own political and self-serving gains.

This is the time, and this is the year to make your voices heard from the CNMI to Washington, DC! This may very well be the last year that we have the chance to impact policy concerning improved status for the long-term CNMI guest workers. We need to keep fighting, keep working, keep organizing, keep gathering, keep speaking out, keep marching, keep rallying, keep signing petitions, and keep believing!