DOI Stands Firm on Closing Ombudsman Office

July 22, 2013

Acting Assistant Secretary of the Department of Interior's Office of Insular Affairs, Eileen Sobeck stood firm on the scheduled September 2013 closing of the federal Ombudsman Office that has provided essential services and assistance to the CNMI's nonresidents for 14 years. Nonresidents and their supporters protested the closure with banners and signs outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel where Sobeck is staying.

Sobeck claims that the services provided by the Ombudsman Office will be "absorbed" by other federal offices, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S Department of Labor. The Saipan Tribune reported that Sobeck said that "the transition is underway."

If there is a transition underway, it is a secret to some federal officials who have contacted DOI Secretary Sally Jewell to protest the closing of the office. DOI Secretary Jewell has yet to respond to the May 31, 2013 letter from Senator Ron Wyden, Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee or to the June 27, 2013 letter from Rep. George Miller (D-CA), a longtime champion for rights of the CNMI's legal, longterm nonresidents. Both letters requested answers to 13 questions first posed in Senator Wyden's letterthat requested a response within thirty days.

The questions Wyden and Miller asked include what affect DOI expected that the closure would have on immigration, law enforcement and labor grievances from aliens; and how many open cases the office has and how they will be handled. They also asked what discussions and agreements DOI has made with DOL and DHS and what presence DOL has in the CNMI outside of the Wage and Hour Division and what authority Wage and Hour has to enforce wage claims against the majority of the businesses. Another question was how will the DOI continue to serve the CNMI and Guam with the closure of this office. Additionally, the two congressional members asked how the $250,000 that was identified in President Obama's FY 2014 for the Ombudsman Office will be spent.

Neither the U.S. Department of Labor or the Department of Homeland Security offices in the CNMI currently has the staff or funds to absorb any more duties. In fact, the USCIS transitional guest worker program has had ongoing problems since its inception because of lack of personnel to process applications and to provide the correct information.

Likewise, for years the U.S. Department of Labor office in the CNMI, like many federal offices, has been understaffed. Currently, neither office has the translations services that the Ombudsman Office provides or the funds, experience and knowledge needed to deal with the wide variety of nonresidents' problems.

In previous years it was the DOI Office of Insular Affairs that led the charge to stop the exploitation and abuse of the foreign workers. It was the Office of Insular Affairs that stood up to the Fitial-DeLay-Jack Abramoff co-conspirators at Congressional Hearings to tell the truth about the plight of the CNMI's foreign workers and demand reform. It is disappointing that the once supportive office is now so out of touch with the issues and would make a move that would contribute to the denial of justice for the suffering foreign workers and nonresidents.

Sobeck seems to lack in-depth knowledge and facts on CNMI issues related to the legal, longterm nonresidents. This was also evidenced in her recent Senate testimony on the Omnibus Territories Act. The Assistant Secretary's testimony ignored the essential fact that an extension of the flawed transitional worker program would be unnecessary if the U.S. Congress had acted upon her own department's April 2010 report that recommended that the legal, longtime nonresidents be granted status. She failed to note that the only mention of status in the Consolidated Natural Resources Act (CNRA) of 2008, U.S. P.L. 110-229, is a provision that mandated the Secretary of the Interior to report to the U.S. Congress by May 2010 on the status of the nonresident workers, including “recommendations to the Congress related to granting alien workers lawfully present in the Commonwealth on the date of the enactment of such Act United States citizenship or some other permanent legal status.”

Among the recommendations in the 2010 Department of Interior report was this statement: "Consistent with the goals of comprehensive immigration reform, we recommend that the Congress consider permitting alien workers who have lawfully resided in the CNMI for a minimum period of five years to apply for long-term status under the immigration and nationality laws of the United States."

Sobeck stated that she was in Saipan to "touch base on the issues". If true hopefully, she will meet with the CNMI's nonresidents and their leaders to gain a better understanding of their plight, including the need for an increase in the federal minimum wage, the need for permanent residency status for the legal, longterm nonresidents and the need to keep the Federal Ombudsman Office open.

The Tribune reported that Governor Inos supports DOI's decision to close the Ombudsman Office. Congressman Sablan, likewise has showed no objection to the closure.  Their reaction is perplexing since recent statistics show an increase in human and sex trafficking cases in the CNMI. Human trafficking cases have grown over the years. In 2010 the Ombudsman Office reported 71 trafficking cases, with 20 percent involving sex trafficking victims.  In fact, just 2 years ago in May 2011, DOE expanded the role of the ombudsman  to include assisting with human trafficking victims in Guam.

 Read the letter and the 13 questions from Senator Wyden:

 Sign the petition to keep the Federal Ombudsman Office Open: