February 26, 2012
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
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.