Message to OIA's Sobeck: Keep the Ombudsman Office Open!

July 21, 2013

Nonresidents and children wait for DOI Assistant Secretary Elaine Sobeck
Photo by Itos Felicano ©2013

Some CNMI nonresidents and their children gathered with a huge banner and some placards outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel today to send a message to the Department of Interior Office of Insular Affairs Acting Assistant Secretary Elaine Sobeck. Their message – Keep the Ombudsman Office open.

The DOI's Office of Insular Affairs scheduled the closure of the Federal Ombudsman Office for September 2013 without any hearings or public input. The amount of $250,000 was already identified in the 2014 federal budget for the office's operating expenses.

The Ombudsman Office provides essential services to the CNMI's large population of nonresidents, including translation services.  The services that are provided cannot be obtained at any other public or private offices in the CNMI.

Workers and advocates are not the only ones calling for the office to remain open. Senator Ron Wyden, Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Congressman George Miller (D-CA) a longtime supporter of reform and  justice for the foreign workers of the CNMI, have both sent letters to DOI Secretary Sally Jewel to request that the office remain open. The letters also asked for answers to 13 specific questions regarding the closure. To date a reply has not been received.

Nonresidents at the Hyatt Regency with Signs for DOI Assistant Secretary Sobeck
The online petition  calling for DOI to keep the Ombudsman Office open has gathered over 2,750 signatures since May when I first posted it. Worker groups have also gathered additional hand written signatures.

The petition outlines the reasons that it must remain open:

We, the undersigned petitioners, are protesting the September 2013 closing of the Federal Ombudsman Office in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). It is an essential office that contributes to the safety and wellbeing of the alien work population that makes up over 70 percent of the private sector workforce. It provides crucial services that are not available at any other government or social agency in the Commonwealth.

Pursuant to U.S. Public Law 105-227, the U.S. Department of the Interior opened the Federal Labor Ombudsman Office in 1999 in the CNMI. The establishment of the office was a response to the skyrocketing and unacceptable number of labor, human rights, and civil rights abuses, as well as the many criminal acts committed against alien workers in the CNMI. Indeed, for years the horrendous maltreatment of the CNMI’s alien workers was protested by foreign governments, served as the topic of numerous Congressional hearings, and was the subject of television documentaries, books, films and headlining articles in national and international newspapers and magazines. The abuses of the innocent CNMI foreigners on U.S. soil has been and continue to be viewed as a black mark on the reputation of the United States, a country that proclaims to uphold human rights for all. The closure of this office will result in the increase of unresolved labor, human rights and civil rights abuses. The closure will be a setback for human rights and justice.

For fourteen years the Federal Ombudsman Office has served as a safe and impartial office to provide tens of thousands of alien workers with the opportunity to state claims and receive appropriate assistance, including referrals to federal and local agencies, the limited number of the island’s socials service providers, and law enforcement agencies. Aliens are assisted through the process of addressing their grievances from the review and fact finding stages until the final resolution. This vital office has aided aliens that have suffered from wage theft, illegal recruitment, contract violations, and those that were victims of criminal acts including rape, assault and battery, false imprisonment, torture and human trafficking. Without this office the alien worker victims’ needs will no longer be met; justice will not be served for those who came to the United States to experience the American dream, but live an American nightmare.

CNMI human trafficking cases, including sex trafficking cases, have increased considerably over the years, as cited in the U.S. State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report. The 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. This further demonstrates the crucial need for the office to remain open.

Translation and counseling services are essential for the CNMI's large community of alien workers. The four extensively trained federal caseworkers at the Ombudsman Office have provided these services to thousands of aliens since 1999. They also serve as translators and interpreters for local and federal agencies and the courts. 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. Without these services the ability of alien worker victims to seek resolutions for their problems will be severely impaired.

The Federal Ombudsman records all cases and is seen as an important source of information on the status and needs of alien workers for Federal and CNMI agencies, a variety of officials, and Congressional Committees. During the transition from the CNMI immigration system to the federalization of immigration, the Federal Ombudsman Office has played a significant and vital role. The Ombudsman conducted a thorough census of all CNMI nonresidents that was required for a mandated report on the status of the CNMI nonresidents.

Closing the Ombudsman Office will reverse all of the gains that have been made in ensuring that alien workers are provided fair and just treatment on U.S. soil, and to ensure that those who are treated unjustly are made whole. To shut the doors on this vital office is to shut the doors on human rights. To close this office is to close opportunities for maltreated workers to obtain justice. We appeal to you to keep the Federal Ombudsman Office open so that the alien workers will continue to have access to the important and much-needed services it provides. 

 You can sign the petition by clicking this link:

Read more about the planned closure and protest here: