July 27, 2012
As the debate about extending the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program versus granting permanent residency status to the legal, long-term foreign workers heats up, mixed messages are coming from the Obama Administration as far as immigration policies.
In statements made to the CNMI press in July 2012, Anthony Babauta, Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior Office, illustrated how deficiencies within the CNRA create troublesome problems with its implementation. He addressed both the status and extension issues. A July 25, 2012 Saipan Tribune article reported that, regarding the status of the foreign workers, Assistant Secretary Babauta stated that:
…the [Department of the] Interior fulfilled its mandate under U.S. Public Law 110-229 to make recommendations to Congress on the status of alien workers in the CNMI but Congress has not taken action on it two years since the May 2010 submission.
“There's nothing in the law that compelled Congress to act based on a report. There was something in the law that compelled the Department of the Interior to report to Congress and that's what we did,” he said.
Babauta said at this point, there's nothing else that Interior could do on the status of foreign workers. He said everything now is in the hands of Congress.The CNRA’s defect in not providing a clear status provision must be corrected. Minus a status provision, at the very least there should have been one to “compel Congress to act” on the U.S. Department of Interior’s recommendations and report.
Aside from the admission that the CNRA is defective, the remarks contain a callous dismissal of responsibility to act on the status of the foreign workers. The Assistant Secretary is in effect stating that the Obama Administration does not actively advocate for the legal, long-term foreign workers of the CNMI in the same way that it advocates for the undocumented aliens in the U.S. mainland. The Obama Administration has been outspoken in its position on the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform, the passage of The DREAM Act, and humane deportation policies. It has taken a pro-immigrant stand on other immigration issues that will impact the lives of millions of undocumented aliens. In stark contrast, Assistant Secretary Babauta is admitting that he will do “nothing” to promote status for the CNMI’s legal, long-term foreign workers. This is extremely disturbing and puzzling.
Considering that Mr. Babauta is very familiar with the plight of the foreign workers, their history, and the intent and development of the CNRA as the former Staff Director for the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans, and Wildlife, I would hope he would take immediate action to advocate for justice and basic civil liberties on their behalf. There certainly are many things that Mr. Babauta could do to advance justice and reform and advocate for status for these legal aliens. He certainly should coordinate with and educate members of the U.S. Congress and the officials who are involved in making policy or in administering the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program so that they understand the distinct differences between the legal, long-term foreign workers in the CNMI and the undocumented aliens in the states. This would clear the muddied waters so that status legislation for the CNMI's legal alien workers would be easier to pass. Mr. Babauta could take steps to ensure that the President of the United States is cognizant of the fact that immigration is not merely a Hispanic issue or confined to the 50 states, but is also a pressing issue for 16,000 Asian aliens who are legally working in the CNMI. The Office of Insular Affairs could draft a legislative proposal to grant permanent residency status for all of the legal, long-term foreign workers for the President to support and get introduced in the U.S. Congress. The Assistant Secretary could be looking into whether the CNRA needs to be amended to designate a deadline for the Congress to act on the issue of status for the CNMI’s foreign workers. He could have the Office of Insular Affairs document the current living and working conditions of the CNMI’s legal, long-term foreign workers and their families to provide an up-to-date picture of their needs and current state. However, to say, “…there's nothing else that Interior could do on the status of foreign workers” is not acceptable to me or to the CNMI’s foreign contract workers.
A compassionate and humanitarian stance on immigration is one of the cornerstones of the Obama Administration. Therefore, it is extremely perplexing that a high ranking Obama Administration official makes a statement on the issue of an extension that seems so out of step with the moral and compassionate views of the President. On his July 2012 trip to the CNMI, Assistant Secretary Anthony Babauta addressed the issue of an extension of the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program with this comment :
“We haven't come to a conclusion. There's no public position yet. We're working closely with both the local government and stakeholders within the CNMI, so that our federal government can have a complete understanding of the reasons that would constitute or justify an extension of the transition period.”If Assistant Secretary Babuata is actually working with stakeholders within the CNMI on this issue then why were no meetings arranged with the foreign workers or their advocates? What larger group of stakeholders is there in the CNMI when it comes to issues of an extension and status than the foreign contract workers who make up 70% of the private sector workforce? The foreign workers and their families make up a large segment, if not the majority, of the CNMI population. Since these important issues concern the foreign workers and their families in perhaps more personal and impactful ways than they impact any other CNMI stakeholder, why weren't they provided a seat at the table?
Indeed, decisions made on extending the transition and on status will determine every aspect of the foreign workers’ lives. These decisions will determine their economic status, their job security, their health, their residence, their present and future plans, their peace of mind, and the very quality of their lives. Too many leaders and officials treat the foreign workers as political pawns who are significant only in that they fit into their political or economic goals. They address them in their speeches, in legislation and in making political decisions, but they do not speak to them face-to-face, seek their input, or weigh their opinions. They do not regard the foreign workers as equal human beings who deserve a seat at the table and a prominent voice in momentous actions that will significantly impact all aspects of their lives.
Officials must stop viewing the foreign contract workers as inanimate objects and as labor units intended to advance the economy or to be used as game pieces by bureaucrats, business leaders, government officials, and political leaders to achieve political, social or economic power, as is the case in the CNMI. They are human beings deserving of respect and dignity and basic human, civil and political rights. They must be given a seat at the table.
Ironically, David Cohen, who served as the former Deputy Assistant for Insular Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2002 to 2007 in the Bush Administration, is an outspoken advocate who is pushing for permanent residency status for the CNMI’s legal, foreign workers. In a November 2011 editorial he stated:
Some say that guest workers who have lost their jobs should just go home. But many of them have devoted their entire adult lives to supplying the skills needed to build the CNMI economy. As their contracts were renewed year after year, the CNMI became their de facto permanent homeland — but one in which they, as perpetually “temporary” workers, could never have political rights. Many of them have minor children — U.S. citizens by birth — who know no other home. It seems cruel to pack these American children off to alien third-world countries to live off of the third-world wages their parents would earn there. If there is no work for these families in the CNMI, why not grant them U.S. permanent residency so they can find opportunities elsewhere in America? As bad as our economy is, surely we can find room for a few thousand workers whose skills and work ethic have proven indispensable to building up a small corner of our country.
Many indigenous islanders in the CNMI oppose granting permanent status to the guest workers. They have legitimate concerns about losing political control of their islands. But with jobs scarce in the CNMI, most guest workers will leave. For those who stay, the old rules — work here, stay here, raise families here, but don’t ever, ever expect to have a say in how your own community is governed — can no longer be defended. Those who favor a guest-worker program for the nation should carefully study the CNMI.
To say that the CNMI offers a “cautionary tale” doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like a cautionary library, well stocked with miscalculations, ironies, unintended consequences and reminders that we should be careful what we wish for. The local islanders originally fought to control their own immigration because they were afraid of being overrun by outsiders. They did end up getting overrun by outsiders — precisely because they were granted control of their own immigration. Most guest workers hailed the federalization of wages and immigration, but many have now lost their jobs — and may soon lose their legal status — as a result.
Some see parallels between the challenges faced by CNMI guest workers and those faced by illegal aliens in the mainland. Congressional staffers say that opposition to amnesty somehow makes it politically impossible to grant CNMI guest workers permanent residence in the U.S. But CNMI guest workers are legal aliens. They cannot afford to wait until Congress figures out how to deal with millions of illegal aliens — and they should not have to.The call for permanent residency status does not just come from advocates like myself or from a former high-ranking U.S. Department of the Interior official. Former CNMI Senator David M. Cing is calling for the abolishment of the CW Program and advocates making the foreign workers “part of the U.S. family”. A July 27, 2012 Marianas Variety article quoted former Senator Cing as saying:
“Why don’t we legitimize them. They have long been a part of our community. They have long been a part of our development. Why don’t we make them a part of the U.S. family,” Cing said.
He told Variety he remembers President Obama’s State of the Union Address where he talked about America being a land of immigrants.
In his own words, he tried to recapture Obama’s statement, “Regardless how they enter the U.S. soil, whether they came in illegally or legally, we have given them food free, we have sent them to colleges and universities free. We gave them work to gain experience. Many of them have joined our Armed Forces. Now that we have invested so much on these people, we are going to send them home? What kind of investment are we doing here?”. . .
But for those who have stayed on island and have taken part in the economic development, Cing wants them to stay and asks the U.S. Congress to give them long-term status.
“Many of these people are good workers — workers we don’t have here on island. They contributed immensely to the growth and development of the islands. Keep these people who have been here contributing to the local economy,” he said. . . .
Cing said there should be some measure of civility among politicians as they tackle immigration and see that granting long-term status or even citizenship to the workers would be favorable to the islands.Mr. Cing noted that even if there was to be an extension of the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program, it would not provide enough time to train the local workforce to replace all of the legal, long-term foreign workers. Of course that is true. How many extensions would the Federal Government approve before it understands that the foreign workers who have lived and worked in the CNMI for years and decades must be enfranchised and granted status to ensure a permanent and stable workforce?
We must recognize that extending and perpetuating a federal CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program will not effectively solve the CNMI’s economic woes or ensure a stable workforce in the CNMI. The CNRA’s intent was to apply the existing federal immigration laws to the CNMI. There should be no rush to extend this program. The rush should be to correct the program’s problems, push permanent residency status for the legal, long-term foreign workers, and start work immediately on applying the INA to the CNMI after the December 2014 deadline.
It is hard to believe that the Obama Administration would support anything less than permanent residency status with an unobstructed pathway to citizenship for the legal, long-term foreign workers of the CNMI, while it supports as much for undocumented aliens in the mainland. Still the President and high-level officials have not taken a public stand on this aspect of the immigration problem. Based on human rights considerations, I urge the President and his Administration to release an immediate official recommendation and public statement on the issues related to the implementation and administration of the CNRA and the status of the CNMI legal, long-term foreign workers.