OIA's Credibility: Going, Going . . .

July 26, 2013

In the past, the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Insular Affairs led the charge in assisting the plight of the CNMI's nonresident workers. Fourteen years ago, upon the urging of advocates, myself included, OIA opened the Federal Ombudsman Office to respond to nonresident worker abuses. They included criminal abuses like rapes, forced prostitution, false imprisonment, assaults, and human trafficking. They included labor abuses such as contract violations, illegal deductions, discrimination and wage theft. The abuses continue to this day for the CNMI's nonresidents – the disenfranchised underclass that lacks rights and the resources to hire their own attorneys to fight against their abusers.

Yet, just months ago, DOI made the hasty and irresponsible decision to close the Federal Ombudsman Office in September 2013. The decision was made without consulting any other federal agencies, the Ombudsman Office itself, any of the 12,000 nonresidents who will be negatively impacted by the closure, or the Obama Administration that had already set aside FY2014 funding to keep the office open.

What was the real reason for the closure? Who in OIA actually made this decision?

It is obvious that the DOI Office of Insular Affairs has a limited understanding of the duties and functions of the Ombudsman Office, and is not very sympathetic to the plight and problems of the CNMI's nonresident population or it never would have closed the office.

Unanswered Letters, Unanswered Questions
Senator Ron Wyden (D-CO) and Congressman George Miller (D-CA) sent letters to DOI Secretary Sally Jewell protesting the closure of the office. Both pointed out that the funding was already in place for FY2014. Wyden requested that DOI answer 13 questions concerning the closure and respond by June 31, 2013. However, Secretary Jewell still has not responded to the questions. (Read, Senator Wyden Protests the Closing of the Ombudsman Office and House Member Joins Senator in Decrying Closure of Ombudsman Office for more information on the letters and congressional reaction.)

Obviously, Secretary Jewell failed to respond to Senator Wyden and Congressman Miller because she has no clue about the function of the office, does not understand the situation of the CNMI's nonresidents and cannot answer the 13 questions about the closure. After all, she just recently stepped into her job as secretary. The responsibility for responding to questions about the office's closure and the damage that is sure to result, falls upon the decision-makers in the Office of Insular Affairs.

OIA's Acting Assistant Secretary Eileen Sobeck is currently in Saipan. Apparently Sobeck's agenda for her Saipan trip includes getting the answers to Senator Wyden's questions and scrambling to establish a plan for the closure of the office. During the last several days, Sobeck has reportedly been meeting with the ombudsman, office staff and some of the leaders of the nonresident worker groups.

It appears that until now, OIA has not even made plans to shift the workload of the Ombudsman Office to other federal agencies as OIA and supporters of the closure, including Delegate Sablan and Governor Inos, have claimed is the plan. Only now, two months before the office closes, is there an investigation to determine how, and if, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Homeland Security can pick up the duties that the ombudsman has carried out for the last 14 years. Those of us who have worked closely with the federal Ombudsman Office over the last fourteen years know that other federal agencies cannot pick up the workload and are unable to handle the sensitive issues that this office oversees.

Reporter Haidee Eugenio from The Saipan Tribune reported:
Interior, in responding to Saipan Tribune questions, said yesterday that “Sobeck’s trip to the CNMI is, in part, for her to assess what’s needed as part of the transition and what responsibilities and functions will be absorbed in the absence of the ombudsman’s office, among other things.” 
“Those details are not available at this time,” the Interior statement said.
It seems that "those details are not available" because Sobeck is still figuring them out at this late date.  Sobecks's response reminds me of the way the U.S. Department of Homeland Security USCIS went about instituting the CNMI's federal transitional guest worker program. They used the "plan as you go" model.  Unfortunately, we have all seen the problems that have come about because of DHS's lack of planning, and lack of sufficient personnel on the ground.

DOI's lack of urgency and response to the protests from advocates, nonresidents and members of Congress is alarming.

OIA Not Paying Its Own Employees!
Perhaps even more alarming was the rumor I heard that two translators in the Ombudsman Office have not been paid for almost six months! I have just confirmed that the rumor is true.

Of course it is Saturday in the CNMI and the Ombudsman Office is closed. I emailed Acting Assistant Secretary Sobeck to ask her to explain why the OIA is not paying these employees, which is a violation of federal law. I also called the Office of Insular Affairs in Washington, DC this morning to ask for an explanation, but I was told that the director was in a meeting and I have not heard back.

The employees should file a case with the U.S. Department of Labor. In fact, this could be a good test case to see how U.S. DOL handles complaints from the Ombudsman Office.

Alarming, and more than a little ironic. This is yet another example that something is not right with the Office of Insular Affairs.

Federal Agencies in the CNMI are Understaffed and Underfunded
Does anyone seriously believe that the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Homeland Security will be able to assist hundreds of nonresident workers with concerns regarding their unpaid wages, abuses, human trafficking, rapes, assaults, and a myriad of other complaints that the Ombudsman Office has routinely managed?

The U.S. DOL's  Wage and Hour Division only has authority over businesses which earn over $500,000 annually. Many of the nonresident workers are employed by CNMI employers whose small businesses are not covered by federal wage and hour laws. What help will DOL be able to provide for them? Will they write letters for the cheaters workers and followup as the Ombudsman Office did? Will they go after their employers to see that they are paid? I seriously doubt that they can assist except where they are allowed to do under federal laws.

Right now there are domestic workers in the CNMI who are owed back wages and filed complaints. What has U.S. DOL done to assist them? Where do their cases stand?

The U.S. DOLWage and Hour Division is aware that the nonresident workers at the Tinian Dynasty Hotel have complained for over 8 years concerning unpaid wages. Action is taken and then the hotel continues to violate labor laws and cheat the employees. Currently, Tinian Dynasty workers are owed weeks of back wages. What is U.S. DOL doing about this?

Nonresident workers have also expressed concerns about the U.S. DOL being capable of taking over responsibilities of the Ombudsman Office. Haidee Eugenio from The Saipan Tribune reported:
Workers urged acting U.S. Interior assistant secretary Eileen Sobeck Wednesday night to help extend the Federal Labor Ombudsman’s Office’s operations in the CNMI beyond Sept. 30 or, in the alternative, ensure that other entities absorbing the ombudsman’s office functions will give “fair treatment” to those seeking help over unpaid wages and related labor issues. 
This comes amid worker groups’ concern that a U.S. Labor Wage and Hour Division employee on Saipan has been improperly siding with employers who do not pay their workers properly, even before reviewing the workers’ specific complaints.
These allegations should be investigated. They also point out why an independent office is needed to address the concerns and complaints of the nonresidents.

Office of Insular Affairs Needs a Makeover
The closing of the Ombudsman Office is yet one more slap in the face that the nonresident workers have received from the federal government over the years.  I worked with that Ombudsman Office in 2007 and 2008 to collect and document hundreds of CNMI DOL-issued Administrative Orders and Judgments that nonresident workers had received in response to labor complaints for unpaid wages. To date the federal government has done absolutely nothing to ensure that the foreign workers get paid the $6.1 million in documented wages that unscrupulous CNMI employers stole from them.

Soon a new Assistant Secretary will be appointed to the Office of Insular Affairs to replace Tony Babauta who resigned earlier this year. Hopefully, that person will be knowledgeable about the territories' concerns and needs. The OIA needs a person who will once again uphold the rights of the CNMI nonresident workers, someone who will step up and take the time to research and respond appropriately to the issues of the CNMI's disenfranchised, underclass of legal, long-term nonresidents.

My fear is that the legitimate concerns of the nonresidents are being dismissed as insignificant or that OIA is listening to those who falsely claim that there are no longer many cases of nonresident abuses that need attention. I would hate to see the return of international headlines highlighting the failure of the U.S. Government to address rampant cases of human rights and labor abuses in the CNMI, as was the case before the opening of the Federal Ombudsman Office. The OIA needs to ensure that the dark era that scarred the reputation of the U.S. does not repeat ever again.

There needs to be strong leadership in the Office of Insular Affairs and a staff that is qualified to make wise decisions that will impact not just the territories, but the reputation of the United States.


Anonymous said...

Of course the office will close because these bureaucrats don't care. How stupid that Sobeck said the budget for the ombudsman office could be used to fund another office. The ombudsman office is there and functioning so how does it make sense to close it and open another one. Dumbest move ever!

Anonymous said...

Those abuses continue for residents and US Citizens as well not just CWs. Where is the help for us ?

Anonymous said...

Any US citizen that sought help at the ombudsman would not be turned away. Stop deflecting from the issue.

Anonymous said...

At least there are people within the federal gvt. that see how stupid and wrong all of this is. Miller and Wyden probably speak for a lot more than themselves. And what's with the translators not getting paid? Are you sure it's not 6 days or 6 weeks? Check again this just can't be right!

Anonymous said...

I can just see DHS taking over complaints. first off they'd make you wait 5 weeks for a appointment and by then it'll be to late. Ditto USDOL. Most labor cases they can't take.NMi is always out of sight out of mind to DC folks but closing ombudsman is plain mean.

Anonymous said...

most immigration questuons that are answered by the Omb, more often than not answered incorrextly or incompletly, can be answered on the USCIS webpage devoted to the CNMI. If not make an apointment and go see them. Same with USDOL. No Fed Agency's job is to fill out applications for intrested parties, USCIS and DHS has impartial interpreters avail if you are before them. Is it possible the Omb incorrectly hired or filled out the immigration paperwork for their people? the fed government doesnt NOT pay lawful employees.....that would be priceless the office that claims to be the know all of immigration messing up their own paperwork.

Anonymous said...

OIA and the DOI Secretary seem to believe that is what the duties of the ombudsman has become since federalization. read their statements as to why they are closing the office. I would think they know more about what an office under their control is doing than any of us. Everyone wants to think the work they are doing is irreplaceable and at the kind of money the omb makes according to the local papers who wouldn't want to keep the gravy train going. Again I think DOI OIA know better as to what that office is doing on a daily basis than we do.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Wendy, Wyden and Miller on this one. The DOI Secretary and Acting Asst. Secretary made a huge mistake in deciding to close the Ombudsman Office. Jewell was CEO of a sports equipment company and is considered an expert on energy and climate change. Sobeck’s expertise is in fish and wildlife. Neither of them have background with insular issues. They listened to the wrong advice and the workers will pay for it.

Anonymous said...

This is OIA vs the Ombudsman (my money is on the OIA) The Ombudsman office is an old relic going back a long time. The office was put in place to address foreign workers and whatever issues they might have - to a point. After marches, vigils and speeches by Tina Sablan, Glen Hunter, and Stephen Woodruff the Federal government took over the CNMI immigration - this ended the Ombudsman's purpose completely. You see the Obmbuds answers to their Federal bosses - NOT the other way around. So for example when Ms. Blackburn advertises her position as "their lawyer" this puts her in a very awkward position to say the least. What would happen if an alien went in and asked for her help on an immigration matter ? Mam, I overstayed, am I illegal." Does this force Ms. Blackburn to immediately contact ICE ? OR does she as their lawyer say nothing? This can possibly be illegal. This is why the office is closing down.

Anonymous said...

5:35 brings up a valid point. The following USCIS site tells specifically who can assist aliens with immigration related applications.

Bottom line on the above is they have to meet all the requirements/standards listed and be recognized through a procedure before they are authorized to practice Immigration Law.

The following is the legal definition of practicing/representation in Immigration Law taken from the City University of New York webinar on Unlawful Practice of Law.

Practice: 8 CFR §§1.1(i) and 1001.1(i) The act or acts of any person appearing in any case, either in person or through the preparation or filing of any brief or other document, paper, application, or petition on behalf of another person or client before or with the Service, or any officer of the Service, or the Board.
Preparation (constituting practice): 8 CFR §§1.1(k) and 1.001.1(k) The study of the facts of a case and the applicable laws, coupled with the giving of advice and auxiliary activities, including the incidental preparation of papers, but does not include the lawful functions of a notary public or service consisting solely of assistance in the completion of blank spaces on printed Service forms by one whose remuneration, if any, is nominal and who does not hold himself out as qualified in legal matters or in immigration and naturalization procedure.
Representation: 8 CFR §§1.1(m) and 1001.1(m) Representation before the Board and the Service includes practice and preparation as defined in paragraphs (i) and (k) of this section.

Based upon all the information that is relayed here and in the newspapers regarding the assistance and mission currently undertaken by that office it is obvious they are practicing Immigration Law by definition and holds themselves to be qualified as immigration experts. I am sure that this puts OIA in a precarious position. Aliens are entitled to legal representation "at no cost to the U.S. Government" of course the ombudsman's office is a U.S. Government entity and as such there is a cost to the U.S. for the assistance rendered. Also you can not have a U.S. Government employee 'represent' parties in an action against the U.S. Government.

Prior to Federalization this type of action might have been both justified and 'legal' but after Fedralization the rules changed.

If the office had continued to only refer persons to the proper agencies this might not be an issue but proactively 'representing' individuals goes into another area. No one is saying the ombudsman's office did so in disregard to the procedures but ignorance or relying on the excuse that 'this is what we did in the past and continue to do' is not an acceptable reason. Congress established the ombudsman's office pre-federalization and no amendments have been made to exempt that office from complying with all other requirements once federalization occurred. I would think that these are some of the reasons DOI is concerned.

Wendy Doromal said...

5:35 and 12:36 No, that is NOT why the office is closing down. But I agree that there are some people who have worked to close the office, including the disgraced ex-governor Fitial, some old CNMI DOL officials and others who hated to see the abuses exposed; hated to see someone stand up for the rights of the VOICELESS and EXPLOITED nonresident workers.

1 The Ombudsman Office does not and has not violated law by assisting workers
2. The OIA has said that it plans to transfer the responsibilities of the ombudsman -meaning take the funding and give it to other FEDERAL offices and/or NGOs so that they can continue the work of the ombudsman
3. Reread the letters from Senator Wyden and Congressman Miller -read their points and read the questions. Their letters are a total smack down on OIA's senseless, irresponsible and reprehensible action
4. Read the State Dept. report on human trafficking in the CNMI.
5. Talk to the nonresidents, especially those whose employers are stealing wages, violating contracts and otherwise exploiting them.
6. Call the ombudsman to ask her what she does -don't assume.

The office is needed. The services are essential to the nonresidents.

Anonymous said...

5:35 You're off base. If anyone in the ombudsman office was overstepping the OIA would tell them to stop. They would not close the office and shift the same duties to others. OIA should be investigated.

Anonymous said...

In regards to our #4, human trafficking, the Feds just rescued 105 children involved in sex trafficking between the ages of 13-17 in a massive raid at over 150 locations across the US. (forgot the states areas and exact location numbers)

But what does the Ombudsman office have to do with NMI human trafficking?

But I agree that this office should stay, with Pam Brown.
She has been here a long time and knows what has been and is going on, but small chance that this will happen.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever fimd out why caseworkers did not get paid for six months??? it isnt something as simple as mixed up paperwork. that is 12 payperiods in fed time. no supervisor or boss would allow their workers to go that long without fixing the problem. i think there is more to this part of the story. having contract employees who are not officially on the books, being paid is a huge no-no in the fed government. that alone can get you removed from your position. dig deep and i think more and more insider info will come out....there is more than meets the eye here...

Wendy Doromal said...

9:30 Dig deeper? I guess. I seldom get responses to any of my emails, calls or letters to OIA. Well, I guess that's not entirely true - sometimes a year later.

I will dig deeper by notifying members of Congress who may be interested.