Push for Reform

February 26, 2012

People lie not only by the words that they speak, but with those that they leave unspoken. I am confident that Fitial did not tell the Administrator of the U.S. Food and Nutrition Services that many of the foreigners that he has labeled as "illegals" are not considered illegals by USCIS; in fact, many have been granted parole or another legal status. I am confident that Delegate Sablan did not tell the members of the Hispanic, Asian Pacific American, Black and Progressive caucuses that the undemocratic bill that he proposed left out more legal foreign workers than it included, much to the detriment of the majority of the CNMI's legal, long-term foreign workers who have earned and deserve no less than permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship.

I continue to appeal to members of the U.S. Congress, U.S. leaders and federal officials in the Obama Administration to upgrade status, provide basic rights and ensure the humane treatment of the foreign workers and their families. I am pleased that Rabby Syed, President of the United Workers Movement, NMI will be collaborating with me over the next few months in efforts to educate and persuade officials and NGOs to support our efforts on behalf of all of the CNMI's foreign workers.

However, it would be less than honest of me not to disclose that in the last two years I feel that pleas in the form of weekly phone calls and emails and letters, testimony, position papers and face-to-face meetings with U.S. officials have generally fallen on deaf ears. Replies from President Obama to correspondence that I sent to him last summer and replies that I have received from other U.S. departments and agencies within his administration reveal that many in the Obama Administration clearly do not fully grasp the plight of the CNMI foreign workers or the urgency of their situation. Otherwise, how could this administration support permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented aliens in the U.S. mainland, and not push for legislation that would grant less than 15,000 legal aliens the same proposed status?

It is also disheartening that officials within the Obama Administration, including some in the U.S. Department of Interior, support H.R. 1466, which conflicts with the intent of the CNRA, maintains the unjust status quo in the CNMI and would provide an inferior status for only 1/4 of the total legal foreign workers in the CNMI. Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure justice and rights for the foreign workers and their families.

We must acknowledge that since the enactment of the CNRA, few U.S. officials who hold positions of power have stepped up to publicly defend the rights and justice for the foreign workers, to end discriminatory policies, or to push for legislation that would grant the CNMI's legal, long-term foreign workers permanent residency status and a pathway to citizenship. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Senator Akaka (D-HI) and Senator Bingaman (D-NM), who previously championed justice and rights for the foreign workers and human and civil rights for every person who lives and works in the CNMI, no longer make public statements denouncing the ill-treatment of the foreign workers or publicly come out to support upgrading their status. We need to reignite support from established allies who are educated on the issues, while at the same time soliciting the help of members of Congress who are concerned not just with human and civil rights, but with preserving the reputation of the United States.

For decades the routine wage theft from the foreign workers has been exposed in letters and public testimony. It has been four years since the Ombudsman Office and advocates collected and documented CNMI DOL Administrative Orders revealing that the CNMI Government allowed $6.1 million to be stolen from foreign workers.  Still, despite numerous documented informal and formal pleas demanding action, the U.S. Government has done nothing to see that the victims receive what is owed to them. What will it take for them to receive justice? We must continue to push for justice to collect back wages and to put an end to wage theft.

It would also be less than honest of me not to confess that while I continue to appeal for permanent residency for the CNMI's legal, long-term foreign workers, I am hesitant to advise the foreign workers to remain in the CNMI under the current political, economic and social conditions. I fear for their safety and well being. While I understand that some foreign workers are hesitant to leave because the CNMI has become their home and they maintain hope for permanent residency status from a just U.S. Congress, it does not appear that the present do-nothing U.S. Congress will even address the status question in the near future. As the clock ticks ominously, the CNMI becomes more risky every day. Furthermore, because the foreign workers are disenfranchised, they have no voice in the CNMI to push reforms that would ensure a just society in which to live. They cannot promote reform at the ballot box. They cannot serve on juries and see to it that criminals are deemed guilty and put behind bars instead of being set free to victimize others over and over.

Regrettably, the CNMI does not offer a reasonably safe, secure or hospitable environment for overseas workers. Over the last three decades, the conditions for foreign workers have never been stable or remotely just, but the present climate for foreign workers in the Northern Marianas has become increasingly hostile and discouraging. Despite federal immigration law finally being applied to the CNMI, it is probably the most dangerous and unsafe place to live on U.S. soil.

Many foreign workers are still waiting for the pay that is owed to them and/or stimulus and tax rebates from the CNMI Government. Some of these workers state that because they have not received these funds they cannot leave. Employers who were responsible for their repatriation no longer accept that contractual responsibility.  Still, some foreign workers have said that if they are given the opportunity to leave the CNMI, they believe that it may be in their best interest to do so. 

The fact that the CNMI is U.S. soil is quite shocking, especially when one considers the alarming intensity of unchecked discrimination against the foreign workers and their families. The blatant denial of their basic civil and human rights originates from, and is endorsed by CNMI leaders and officials who oversee or work in federally funded CNMI departments and offices. Worse is the fact that the United States Government has too often ignored the ongoing and escalating denial of even the most basic civil and human rights of the foreign workers and their families. Officials within the U.S. Departments of Justice, Labor and Interior, as well as members of the U.S. Congress, have failed to respond to or investigate breeches of democracy or complete absence of justice in the CNMI in a timely manner, or at all. The consequences of that inaction has resulted in tens of thousands of innocent people being subjected to needless suffering and being compelled to tolerate irreversible financial and personal damage. This persistent pattern of failure to take immediate action to reverse the ever-arising problems appears to be ongoing; so we can only expect conditions to worsen for the foreign workers and their families.

The disenfranchised foreign workers, who have very few basic rights to begin with in this U.S. Commonwealth, are now being promised that they will have even less if hateful, discriminatory and unconstitutional legislation passes.  CNMI Governor Benigno Fitial and other officials have made it clear that regardless of the number of years the foreign workers have lived and worked in the CNMI, they are not appreciated or welcomed as respected community members. Where else on U.S. soil could foreign workers live and work in a community legally for 5, 10, 20, 30 or more years and still be told that they are not worthy to be granted permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship? Both Delegate Sablan and Governor Fitial strive in their own ways to maintain the status quo of the foreign workers to ensure that they remain in the CNMI only as a disadvantaged and disenfranchised underclass in an unjust and racist two-tiered society comprised of the haves and have nots.

Probably one of the major concerns of the foreign workers is the unavailability of adequate healthcare. New legislation proposes that foreign workers would have to pay for their own healthcare costs with their ridiculously low salaries. Previously, the employers paid for the medical costs for the foreign workers; or more accurately, the employers were contractually responsible for covering the healthcare costs but many never paid the bills or deducted the costs illegally from the workers' paychecks.

Foreign workers who have medical conditions, those who have children and even more importantly, those with children requiring special medical needs risk facing denial of medical treatment or even the death of themselves or a family member. The Commonwealth Health Center is a failed institution (as are the Tinian and Rota Health Centers) and is incapable of meeting the most basic health care needs of the community, never mind being able to provide adequate care for extremely critical cases.

letter to the editor by Michael Deary, MD clarifies the clear seriousness of the health care crisis with the island's only hospital. The comprehensive letter details the failings and ignorance of the CNMI Legislature and officials. It is a frightening look at a crisis that is not going to get better any time soon, or ever, according to the author who is the CHC's Director for Medical Affairs.  He concludes his letter with this statement:
Two months ago when people asked me about the hospital and what was going to happen, my reply was, "We are going through some tough times but we are going to be okay if we can implement the changes needed to improve the healthcare system." When I was asked that question more recently I shook my head and said, "I don’t know." After reading the actions of the Senate regarding HB 17-278 my answer is, "I am the director of Medical Affairs, the highest position held by a healthcare provider within the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., and I am looking for a new job."

. . .At this point I do not see the healthcare system here being able to overcome its difficulties with this interference.
There are better hospitals and healthcare systems in many of the foreign workers' home countries than what exists in the CNMI. In fact, it should be noted that the same CNMI officials who contributed to the demise of the CNMI hospitals, seek personal medical care in the Philippines or other off-island locations. Medical referrals to the Philippines has been commonplace for CNMI residents.

Since there are no longer adequate funds for medical referrals, some fear that in emergencies cases foreign workers will not be accommodated, and lacking savings or the pay that is owed to them, they may face life or death situations. If the discriminatory pattern evident in the NAP and other CNMI offices is followed in determining who does and does not get a needed medical referral, then foreign workers have reason to worry.  It is no wonder that the foreign workers are weighing the risks of remaining in a place where lack of equipment, supplies, and medical personnel at the only hospital on island could result in deadly consequences.

The lack of a stable healthcare system is not the only concern for the foreign workers. Crime is skyrocketing and crimes against aliens routinely are ignored, unprosecuted or unresolved. Discrimination at federally funded CNMI offices is blatant, but U.S. officials appear to ignore or dismiss it. Racist, anti-worker bills are being pushed in the CNMI Legislature. Prices for essential commodities are the highest anywhere on U.S. soil, while the minimum wage remains a poverty level wage, not a living wage. Not just unpaid wages, but tax rebates and stimulus checks from years ago still have not been received by many foreign workers. All of these problems must be resolved. A unified foreign worker community working together and speaking with one voice could help quicken the pace of lasting reform.

The legal, long-term foreign workers should be granted permanent residency status that would allow them the freedom to stay or leave the CNMI.  If given upgraded status with a pathway to citizenship, those who have a well-paying job with decent benefits may opt to remain in the CNMI.  Those who have unstable jobs or strive for a more secure community in which to raise their families may opt to relocate to the U.S.  Meanwhile, none of the foreign workers who want to return to their homelands should be trapped in the CNMI because their employers or the CNMI Government owe them money. All of the foreign workers legally living and/or working in the CNMI must be treated with dignity and be afforded basic rights. We need to work together to ensure that someday soon the legal long-term foreign workers of the CNMI will be regarded as future citizens rather than as disposable commodities.


Anonymous said...

thanks for the honesty and for trying when most gives up. i'm leaving next month. i'll miss my friends but won't miss the mean way we're treated. i'll be trading a little salary for my family to be united in a happy place. good luck to all of us. good luck to you too, m'am wendy.