May 12, 2013
I have yet to receive a response to the email that I sent to OIA inquiring as to the logic behind this questionable decision, but an unidentified spokesperson from the Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) responded to questions posed by a reporter from the Saipan Tribune.
The Saipan Tribune quoted the unnamed OIA official:
OIA said the closure is a result of a “dramatic shift” in the U.S. Labor Ombudsman's Office work-“from working on serious labor and trafficking violations to assisting individual alien workers with more routine immigration and labor issues.”
“During the 1990s and early 2000s, a Federal Ombudsman was necessary to assist victims of egregious labor and immigration violations. It has now been nearly five years since DHS [Department of Homeland Security] has taken over immigration responsibilities in CNMI pursuant to the terms of the CNRA [Consolidated Natural Resources Act], and since the last of the garment factories in the CNMI closed,” an OIA official said in response to Saipan Tribune email questions.It appears that some of the OIA officials are uniformed about the on-the-ground situation and plight of the alien workers in the CNMI. Or are they just making up excuses to pull off a political maneuver of sorts? Surely, they receive reports from the Federal Ombudsman Office and the Obama Administration regarding the status of the alien workers, their problems and the caseload of the office.
Routine issues says the OIA? Is it routine not to be paid for months? Is it routine to be trafficked and forced into the sex trade? Is it routine for an alien worker to be brutally beaten by a police officer? No abuses are "routine" to the abused.
It is disappointing that the OIA is coming out with this bureaucratic rhetoric. Their reasoning is unsound. There has been no "dramatic shift" as this unnamed OIA spokesperson claims. The only shift I see is that the labor, civil rights, and human rights abuses are now taking place under a federal immigration system rather than under a local one.
Under the almost five-year-old federal immigration system, USCIS runs an understaffed office on Saipan. Alien workers have complained that it is difficult to get an appointment to get questions answers. The Ombudsman Office has answered many of their questions.
It takes months, and in some cases over a year, to process worker applications from the USCIS Office in California, which has created serious problems for employers and employees.
Foreign embassies and consulates still are not in sync with the new CW regulations. Numerous alien workers have been stranded in foreign countries because officials cannot understand the paperwork and policies.
Former Ombudsman James Benedetto was quoted by the Marianas Variety:
“Given all the new legal issues that have arisen during the transition period, such as parole, travel restrictions, different visa categories, CW applications, permits and renewals, to name but a few, there’s no doubt that the Ombudsman’s Office is just as important now as it ever was,” said Benedetto.Absolutely true.
Despite the obvious problems, elected officials, including the CNMI Delegate and Governor, want the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program to be extended for another five years.
Benedetto said, “I’m surprised that DOI would choose to close the Ombudsman’s Office now, before we even know if the Department of Labor will extend the transition period as requested by Congressman Sablan.”
The Ombudsman Office runs on a minimal budget, so cost cannot be the problem. Delegate Sablan said, "Although there are funds for the position, federal personnel regulations prohibited further staffing for this position."
I understood that the position could have been made permanent, but OIA choose to close the office rather than to make the position permanent and keep the office open.
Alien workers are still being cheated. They are still experiencing wage theft, contract violations, and other abuses. They are still the victims of crimes. In some ways their plight is even more severe than it was in the late 1990's when the ombudsman office first opened. Since most of the alien workers have now invested many years or decades working and living in the islands, most do not feel free to complain. With such an insecure status, to complain could mean that the alien workers could be forced to leave the only home that they have known for most of their adult lives. To complain could mean loss of a job, and even a poor job where a worker is cheated is better than no job at all. Exploitive employers know the predicament of the alien workers and they take advantage of their fear. From what I am hearing, too many unscrupulous employers are capitalizing on the alien workers uncertainty and unstable status. The Ombudsman Office must remain open to advise and protect the exploited alien workers.
Perhaps more striking is the fact that the human trafficking cases in both Saipan and the CNMI have grown since 1999 and over the last few years. The Office of Insular Affairs is fully aware of the fact that CNMI human trafficking cases, including sex trafficking cases, have increased considerably over the years. The U.S. State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report recommended that in order to better combat human trafficking, the United States needed to intensify enforcement and workers rights infrastructure, such as ombudsman offices, in insular areas. As a response, in May 2011, the role of the ombudsman was expanded to include providing assistance with human trafficking victims in Guam.
The State Department's 2012 Trafficking of Persons Report makes clear that this office is essential:
CNMI is a source, destination, and transit island for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. During the reporting period, the U.S. Attorney's Office charged two men with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, and financially benefitting from a sex trafficking venture, involving Chinese women. In CNMI, DOI's Office of Insular Affairs – Federal Ombudsman's office referred matters it considers to constitute human trafficking to federal investigative agencies and the U.S. Attorney's Office. The CNMI Human Trafficking Intervention Coalition (HTIC), along with representatives from Guam, sponsored a human trafficking regional training conference focused exclusively on human trafficking that was the first of its kind in the CNMI. Since the regional conference, the U.S. Attorney's Office has sponsored additional human trafficking and immigration-related training to community stakeholders. The first civil rights conference, which included human trafficking training, was also held in September 2011.
The territory of Guam is a source and destination location for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. During the reporting period, there were no new reported human trafficking cases. With local and federal partners, the U.S. Attorney's Office held a two-day Pacific regional conference on trafficking in persons, which was the first of its kind. Since then, the U.S. Attorney's Office has sponsored additional human trafficking and immigration related training to community stakeholders. The first civil rights conference, which included human rights training, was also held in Guam. Sentencing and forfeiture proceedings are pending for a 69-year-old Guam bar owner who was convicted in the previous reporting period for conspiracy, sex trafficking, and coercion and enticement to travel for purposes related to prostitution, for a scheme to force young women and one minor girl into prostitution at his bar.Another insular area, American Samoa, is also considered a transit point for human trafficking, according to the 2012 report. Ombudsman Pamela Brown, who is the most extensively trained attorney in combating human trafficking in the Pacific, accompanied Alicia Anne Garrido Limtiaco, US Attorney for the Districts of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, to American Samoa for a 2011 conference that included addressing human trafficking. Limitaco stressed the need for cooperation and coordination between the Pacific nations in fighting human trafficking.
Recently, it was reported that the Ombudsman Office uncovered "scores of trafficking cases" in American Samoa. Who will address these cases and the ones that come up after the office is closed?
The closing of the office conflicts with the Obama Administration State Department report that praise the accomplishments of the Department of the Interior's Ombudsman. The report, Obama Administration Accomplishments on Combating Trafficking in Persons as of February 2012, summarizes the work of the Ombudsman Office and makes it clear how essential it is.
From the report:
Department of the Interior
- Within the Department of Interior, the Federal Ombudsman (Ombudsman) provides assistance to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands' 30,000 plus nonresident workers with labor and immigration complaints. The Federal Labor Ombudsman participated in the Pacific Regional Conference sponsored by the DOJ, National Districts Attorneys Association, and DOS entitled, "Strategies for Justice: A Pacific Vision” in January 2011. The agenda for the conference focused on trafficking in persons, child sexual exploitation, and technology facilitated crimes. Over 400 participants gathered in Guam representing law enforcement, educators, health care providers, and social service providers from around the Pacific Region.
- In May 2011, the Ombudsman, along with other members of the Human Trafficking Intervention Coalition (HTIC) for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), sponsored an educational conference entitled "Human Trafficking Regional Training Conference." The HTIC is a coalition of law enforcement and social service organizations dedicated to fighting trafficking in humans in the CNMI as well as to provide immediate social welfare services to victims of trafficking. It was established in 2006 and has received numerous federal grants to continue its work. On September 14, 2011, the Ombudsman was elected the chairman of the CNMI HTIC. The Conference was the first regional training in the CNMI exclusively devoted to trafficking in persons issues and brought speakers from around the United States including AUSAs from South Carolina and victim shelter and rehabilitation directors from Cambodia. The Conference was attended by more than 250 participants from faith based organizations, law enforcement officials, services providers, and health care professionals from around the Pacific Region.
- Also in May 2011, Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Anthony Babauta expanded the geographic scope of the Ombudsman’s work to include the entire Marianas. Since the announcement of the expansion of her region of responsibilities, the Ombudsman has made several trips to Guam to conduct out-reach to the community representatives from both faith-based and ethnic-based communities to begin to develop the mutual trust and partnerships necessary to combat trafficking of persons in the territory. She has also met extensively with Guam governmental officials, both executive and legislative, which is necessary for effective prevention and prosecution of this crime. Developing a federal and local partnership also helps to leverage the resources available for the protection of victims.
- On August 9, 2011, the Ombudsman participated as a presenter during the American Samoa Multi-Disciplinary Team Against Family Violence, in collaboration with the U.S. National District Attorney Association's (NDAA) National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, hosted a conference entitled, "Weaving the Pacific to End Child Abuse." The focus of the Ombudsman's presentation was the experiences of establishing the Ombudsman office in the CNMI and its role in combating trafficking in persons. The presentation focused on the goal of establishing a regional approach to this effort.
- During the course of 2011 calendar year, 10 more victims of human trafficking sought assistance from the Ombudsman. Of these, based on extensive interviews and documentary evidence, it was determined that nine of these aliens had credible claims of victimization under the TVPA. The Ombudsman also assisted in the successful completion of federal law enforcement investigations of complaints involving 13 victims of trafficking or labor fraud. These investigations were referred to the U.S. Attorney for the Districts of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands and prosecutions are either underway or awaiting sentencing. The office continues to actively assist approximately 72 victims of trafficking or labor fraud whose complaints were referred in 2009 and 2010 to Federal law enforcement agencies with these on-going investigations as well as humanitarian relief.
- The Ombudsman is working collaboratively with USAOs, FBI, and DHS in identifying and investigating claims of human trafficking.
It makes absolutely no sense to stop and even reverse the progress of this office!
- Throughout the year, the Ombudsman office has worked cooperatively with the legal community, lead law enforcement agencies, and Guma Esperanza with regard to victims seeking immigration benefits. The Ombudsman is aware of ten individuals who have received continued presence, and three victims as well as their derivative family members who have received T nonimmigrant status.