June 21, 2012
In a move to maintain the status quo –keep cheap labor in the form of thousands of foreign workers who are denied of basic rights and kept as a disenfranchised underclass in the CNMI's two-tiered society– CNMI Governor Fitial, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce and some CNMI legislators are pushing for an extension of the federal guest worker program. According to the CNRA, an extension must be determined 180 days before the expiration.
The CNRA calls for a reduction of the foreign work force to zero by 2014. I interrupt that to mean that by 2014 the U.S. Congress would have introduced and passed legislation to provide permanent residency status to the legal, long-term foreign workers making a CNMI-only guest worker program virtually unnecessary. This is the only just and democratic solution.
An extension of a program that had a shaky start, was and is uncoordinated, lacks adequate funding and personnel and has little Congressional oversight would be foolhardy. The CNMI Guest Worker Program is problematic and has not provided the smooth and orderly transition called for in the CNRA.
The final rule was published at the last minute legally possible, causing uncertainty and little time for planning for employees and employers. Now eight months after the deadline for CW applications less than one-third of all the applications submitted have been processed. Soon it will be time for employers and foreign workers to submit new documentation along with new fees. How is a program with expensive processing fees going to advance the CNMI economy? Can businesses afford to pay these fees for 6 more years? How many of the skilled foreign workers will even opt to stay in a place that offers no future status or pathway to citizenship; where they routinely suffer contract violations, late payment of wages or wage theft; and where they are routinely victims of discrimination and unfounded attacks?
It is interesting that the governor wants to extend a program that he has continually attacked. The governor and the delegate blamed the federal system for taking jobs from locals saying that USCIS allowed employers to "inflate qualifications" giving an advantage to the foreign workers. Fitial and Sablan both have rallied for the locals to fill jobs, referring to them as "my people". Fitial requested that the foreign workers who served the CNMI for decades not receive parole-in-place. The Fitial Administration does not support U.S. citizen children of foreign workers receiving food stamps because it means "his people" have a reduced amount.
In November 2011 the Saipan Tribune quoted the governor:
Governor Benigno R. Fitial on Friday lashed out at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for its "refusal and failure" to do its job, saying its decision to allow certain nonresidents to stay here for another year "is not right."
"I will not allow illegal aliens to stay another year," Fitial said.
He also said his heart belongs to "my people," in reaction to Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan’s urging him to "open" his " heart."
"Those who have jobs will continue to send money off-island rather than contributing to a growing economy. And, with non-citizen workers willing to work in highly skilled jobs for $5.05 an hour, the economy of the CNMI will remain weak," he said.I could go back through the CNMI papers and find dozens of examples where Fitial and the CNMI leaders have complained about the guest worker program and blamed it for economic woes. I could find dozens of articles where CNMI leaders have unjustly attacked the foreign workers.
"My duty as governor is to serve the people of the commonwealth. They are being hurt by the refusal and failure of USCIS to perform its duties. I have instructed the attorney general to review USCIS conduct and give me advice on how we might proceed," he added.
The governor said he aims at real economic growth for the CNMI, "not cheap political promises to those who are hurting our local economy and locals who want to get jobs at a living wage."
The truth is that they may not want the workers, but they desperately need them. The truth is that if they are going to have to have them, they will demand that they remain as a disfranchised underclass where they can continue to cheat them, deny them of basic civil and human rights and keep them under their feet. The true shame is that this is done with the blessing of the United States Government under a federally run program. To extend the progam will be to extend the shame. In fact, any guest worker program that lacks an eventual pathway to citizenship is deeply flawed and unjust.
What the CNMI political and business leaders need to realize is that it is the system that is not only hurting the legal long-term foreign workers, but it is hurting the CNMI. The foreign workers have benefited the islands for decades and continue to be essential workers and community members. They are more than replaceable foreign workers; most have lived and worked in the CNMI for years and decades. They are de facto citizens. They must be granted permanent residency status.
The truth is that the CNMI economy would totally collapse if the majority of the foreign workers were to leave. They make up about 70% of the private work force. The provision in the CNRA can be met by granting the legal, long-term foreign workers permanent residency status. With permanent residency status the legal, long-term foreign workers will finally be free. Those who have secure jobs with good employers will be free to stay. Those with no jobs or jobs with greatly reduced hours or employers who steal wages will be free to leave. All will be free from uncertainty, free to work to make up for stolen wages, free to have a secure future. That is the only just and democratic solution.
Speaking before the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures, Governor Fitial complained that the CNMI Delegate cannot vote. Only state representatives can vote in the U.S. Congress and only U.S. citizens living in a state can vote or the U.S. President. It would take a Constitutional Amendment for a territory or non-state locale to vote. Fitial should know this.
The governor should also acknowledge that the population of the CNMI is smaller than a small U.S. city and that the residents of the CNMI do not pay federal income taxes. He may also want to acknowledge how many billions of U.S. dollars have been given to the CNMI.
The Marianas Variety headlines reads: "Fitial still frustrated with feds". I wonder how many "feds" are frustrated with Fitial?