May 9, 2013
A shocking job vacancy notice posted on the Jobs.gov website verifies the sickening news. It reads in part:
The Labor Ombudsman will work with the Policy Director of the Office of Insular Affairs to define, plan and staff the Ombudsman's Office and work in the fields of labor, immigration, civil rights, and criminal law. This office provides workers with the opportunity to state claims to a Federal official who can then assist the worker in the appropriate handling of such claims by a local or Federal agency. The incumbent will be counted on to establish relationships of trust and confidence with alien workers as well as to supervise the Ombudsman's Office fairly.
This is a temporary appointment for which all qualified applicants with or without Federal status may apply and be considered. Appointments to this position, however, will not convey permanent status in the Federal service and will be for a period not-to-exceed 6 months.
The Office of the Secretary has determined that the duties of this position are suitable for telework and the selectee may be allowed to telework with supervisor approval. This position has no further promotion potential.
This office will be closing at the end of fiscal year 2013. The incumbent will assist with the closure and transition plan.Over the years I have witnessed some really poor decisions and ignorant moves made by federal officials in regard to the plight of alien workers in the CNMI, but this one tops them all. I am shocked, angry and dismayed.
Some Background on the Federal Ombudsman Office
In 1998 I was hired by the U.S. Department of Interior's Insular Affairs Office to lead a 7-member team of attorneys and advocates to gather the latest information on foreign worker issues that would be of particular interest to the Federal Government. The report that documented the findings concluded with recommendations. Among them was one that I found particularly critical:
"Immediately establish a federal worker protection office to assist the need of the foreign contract workers including appropriate legal assistance, food, shelter and medical care."In a meeting of key federal department officials and cabinet members, including Bruce Babbitt, then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, I presented the recommendation along with the others cited in the report, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) Labor and Human Rights Abuse Status Report.
For years my husband, Boboy, and I assisted alien workers through an underground railroad in Rota and later in Saipan. We provided emergency shelter and food. But beyond meeting basic needs, we recognized that victims needed someone to help them connect with the appropriate individual, organization or government agency to resolve their problems so we provided that service. We understood the urgent need of workers to have a safe, impartial place to express grievances, so our door was also open. We knew that some of the alien workers had limited English abilities, so Boboy interpreted documents for Filipinos, and served as a translator for them at labor and court hearings.
It was a struggle to meet the needs of the alien workers who required help, especially since in the early 1990's their numbers grew from a handful to hundreds within a span of months. With no outside funding, restricted time limits, few resources, and limited language abilities, two people can only accomplish so much. A federally funded ombudsman office would provide all of the critically needed services, which is why I lobbied for its establishment.
Through the urging of advocates, members of Congress and former Insular Affairs Directors, Allen Stayman and Danny Aranza, the U.S. Department of Interior Federal Ombudsman Office was established in 1999. Finally, there would be a properly funded and staffed office where the foreign workers could go to seek much-needed assistance.
Essential Services Provided
Since the opening of the Ombudsman Office, tens of thousands of alien workers have been assisted. They were referred to the proper CNMI and/or federal agencies for help with labor, human trafficking, criminal or other abuse cases. This vital office has aided aliens that suffered from wage theft, illegal recruitment, contract violations, and those that were victims of criminal acts including rape, assault and battery, false imprisonment and torture.
Translation and counseling services are essential for the CNMI's community of alien workers that makes up 70 percent of the private sector work force. The four case workers at the Ombudsman Office have provided these services to thousands of aliens since 1999. Aside from interpretation, the case workers provide counseling, outreach education to alien workers; and assistance in applying for, and obtaining relief with appropriate Federal and CNMI agencies.
A breakdown of the work of the Ombudsman Office over the years demonstrates its need. From its opening in June 1999 until March 2008 at the end of the garment era the office assisted over 10,500 individuals; from then until November 2009, the effective date of federalization, the office handled over 8,500 cases; since then until now it has helped over 6,500 individuals. Even though the population of the alien workers has decreased from a high of over 40,000 to the present estimate of about 13,000 alien workers, the caseload has not decreased proportionately, which indicates the necessity for the office to remain open.
Human trafficking cases have grown over the years. In 2010 the Ombudsman Office reported 71 trafficking cases, with 20 percent involving sex trafficking victims. Just 2 years ago in May 2011, the role of the ombudsman was expanded to include assisting with human trafficking victims in Guam.
Immigration, and criminal cases have also increased since the opening of the office. In fact, they continue to increase. Likewise, the number of those seeking interpreting services has grown considerably. The need for this office is greater than ever.
In addition to the labor, discrimination, immigration, trafficking, and criminal cases the Federal Ombudsman Office also provided humanitarian assistance ( food, shelter, and referrals to counseling services and local and federal programs) to thousands of alien workers.
The number of alien workers seeking help from the office is a reflection of the trust and confidence that the alien workers have in Ombudsman Pam Brown and her qualified staff. The office offers a safe refuge for those who are abused, cheated, or victimized. It provides answers to those confused by complicated laws and policies.
The need for the ombudsman office is glaring. Anyone visiting the office would know the dire consequences of DOI pulling the rug out from beneath the alien community and leaving them without their primary support system. Why on earth would the U.S. Department of Interior make such an unwise and harmful decision?
Over the last few decades, the United States Government has made many missteps in dealing with the plight of the CNMI alien population. Initially they turned a blind eye to the problems. During the Abramoff-Tenorio-Fitial era, too many regarded the aliens as pawns in a self-serving political game and reform was elusive. Finally, when the CNMI problems escalated to such enormous proportions that advocates, foreign governments and international media outlets were protesting in outrage, the U.S. stepped in and made some small steps by providing band aid-size solutions for hemorrhage-size problems.
Advocates had hoped that the federalization bill would solve most of the lingering problems, but the U.S. Congress botched the bill and any hope for true reform by removing the essential status provision. Even the much-anticipated federal guest worker program turned out to be a hastily planned build-as you go Lego-type project. Indeed, the significant number of the immigration cases at the Ombudsman Office attest to the problems with the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program. Now, more than ever the Ombudsman Office should be maintained and expanded.
The establishment of the Ombudsman Office was the first major act of the Federal Government in dealing with the ill-treatment and injustice suffered by thousands alien workers. Tearing it down signals the Federal Government's indifference to the fate of those who remain in an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear.
Since the Ombudsman Office opened, I have referred hundreds of workers to the office. Without this office, who will assist the hundreds of indigent alien workers who were cheated of their wages and cannot afford to hire an attorney? Who will provide translation services for the thousands that require it? Without this office, who will accurately report on the status and problems facing the CNMI's alien workers? Without this office where will CNMI aliens find assistance with immigration problems?
If this office is closed, expect to see a return to cover-ups, unchecked labor abuses and intense oppression and victimization of the alien workers. We need to band together to reverse this senseless action. We also need to ensure that a qualified individual with knowledge of the CNMI and insular affairs is appointed to the post left vacant with the resignation of former Assistant Secretary of Insular Affairs, Tony Babauta.
Protest the Closing
I will be posting a petition requesting to keep the office open. I will also be contacting members of Congress and officials to ask for help in keeping the office open. Please join me in working to keep this office open! Updates to follow. . .
Rep. Doc Hastings