July 12, 2013
The hearing was as interesting for what was not stated as it was for what was stated. Many essential facts were omitted from testimonies, resulting in the unfortunate watering down and blurring of reality in some of the most important CNMI issues.
Senator Wyden, the Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, opened the hearing with a statement on the bill. He spoke to only two of the bill's proposals –Section 12 of the bill, Guam War Claims and Section 9, the temporary heating and energy assistance to the Virgin Islands. He briefly stated why he supported both.
Senator Wyden (D-OR) noted that he and ranking committee member, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the legislation by request. From his statement:
Senator Murkowski and I introduced the bill “by request.” As many of my colleagues know, introducing a bill “by request” is a courtesy Senators usually provide to the Executive Branch. However it can be extended to others.
It means that Senator Murkowski and I are not endorsing the bill, or offering support for all of its provisions. We are merely offering it for consideration at the request of others – in this case the elected representatives of the various territories.
The Omnibus Territories Act contains a wide variety of proposals. Some have been considered by this Committee before, and others are new. Some are controversial and others have broad support.It is reassuring that the senator does not support all of the bill's provisions, since some are harmful. Especially offensive is Section 4 that would delay the scheduled 2013 and 2015 federal minimum wage increases in the CNMI.
Senator Wyden not only introduced S. 1237 "by request", but he also introduced "by request" a separate Senate bill, S. 256, which also calls for a delay in the CNMI’s $.50 federal minimum wage increase in 2013 and 2015. One introduction by request may be excused as a "courtesy", but two? The same provision would only be introduced twice to ensure its passage, so it appears that classifying the introduction of the bills as "by request" may be merely an excuse for supporting the unfair federal minimum wage delays in the CNMI. Members of Congress should introduce legislation that is beneficial, moral and just, and not stick on disclaimers such as "by request" to make excuses for legislation that is not.
As noted in a previous post both Senator Wyden and CNMI Delegate Gregorio Sablan introduced the Omnibus Territories Act, which calls for a delay in raising the CNMI federal minimum wage to $7.25, and both members also cosponsored legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10. The inconsistently is perplexing, especially since Democrats support a fair federal minimum wage and support raising the federal minimum wage. In fact, President Obama called on the U.S. Congress to raise the federal minimum wage in his 2013 State of the Union Address.
Senator Murkowski also stated that the bill was introduced "by request" and expressed that further changes would have to be made before the bill could advance in the Senate. From her statement:
While this bill was introduced by request, we made some changes to this bill compared to what was introduced in the House. I anticipate that further changes will need to be made should the Committee move forward on the bill and I look forward to working with each of the delegates on these matters.Of course, CNMI Delegate Gregorio Sablan supported all of the CNMI provisions, since he wrote and backs them. You can read his testimony at this link.
Sablan's testimony references comments by Governor Eloy Inos, but the governor's statement was not available on the committee's website.
Also interesting was the testimony of Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Insular Affairs, Eileen Sobeck. Ms. Sobeck testified in support of several of the CNMI provisions. She supported Section 3, which would give the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) authority over the submerged lands out to three geographical miles from its coast lines. She stated:
At present, the CNMI is the only United States territory that does not have title to the submerged lands in that portion of the United States territorial sea that is three miles distant from its coastline. It is appropriate that the CNMI be given the same authority as other territories.She is correct.
However, she was way off in her defense of Section 4, which would delay the increases in the federal minimum wage in the CNMI. She referred to the collapse of the garment industry, failing to mention the fact that the collapse took place many years ago and the fact that the federal government had warned the CNMI to prepare for the exodus of garment factories years before it took place.
The purpose of section 4 is to spread out the minimum wage increases for the CNMI to help ensure the survival of island businesses and their employees’ jobs. Specifically, section 4 would slow the pace of minimum wage increase until after 2015, when the annual increases would resume, similar to the adjustment made previously for American Samoa. The Department of the Interior has no objection to section 4.
Ms. Sobeck presented no current economic statistics or facts to support her argument for a delay in the CNMI federal minimum wage increase. In fact, the only clear economic statement she did make was the fact that the tourism industry was making economic strides. That remark was made in her defense of Section 5, which deals with extending the transitional worker program for another 5 years.
Concerning extending the flawed transitional worker program Sobeck stated:
The Department of the Interior has always supported measures that promote economic development in the CNMI, and in the CNRA, the Congress specifically directed the Department of the Interior to aid the CNMI economy during the immigration transition. As a result, in 2011, the Department conducted a Forum on Economic and Labor Development (FELD) in Saipan, designed to elicit from the CNMI community ideas and goals for the CNMI economy. The Department later provided $1 million in grant funds to implement the FELD findings.
While it cannot yet be characterized as an economic rebound, statistics from recent months show increases in CNMI tourism and hotel bookings.
Nevertheless, businesses and CNMI government officials are concerned that if the approximately 12,000 foreign workers resident in the CNMI under the transitional worker program were forced to leave at the end of 2014, the reduction would have significant adverse consequences for the CNMI economy.
Under the CNRA, the Secretary of Labor already has the discretion to extend the CNMI-only transitional worker program by up to five years if warranted by economic conditions. The Department of Labor is now conducting studies that will inform that decision.
The Department of the Interior defers to the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security regarding important aspects of section.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 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."
Her failure to mention the recommendation from DOI is astounding and demonstrates the conflict and inconsistencies that federal agencies and members of the U.S. Congress have in dealing with CNMI issues. The issue of the 2014 deadline should have been addressed and resolved immediately in 2010 after the DOI report and recommendation was issued. Congress failed their duty.
The vast majority of the essential estimated 12,000 legal, long-term nonresidents would not have to leave at the end of 2014 if they were granted U.S. permanent residency. The transitional period would not need to be extended at if the U.S. Congress had immediately amended P.L. 110-229 to include a status provision, such as the one I drafted.
Waiting for comprehensive immigration reform to pass is not necessary, nor is it the best interest for the CNMI's legal, long-term nonresidents, the business community, or the economy. An amendment to P.L. 110-229 would ensure that the essential 12,000 nonresident workers who make up an estimated 80 percent of the private sector workforce would remain securely in the CNMI.
Additionally, no one testified to the fact that if it is indeed necessary to renew the problematic and flawed transitional worker program because of the failure of the U.S. Congress to amend P.L. 110-229 or to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that contains a provision for improved status for the CNMI's legal, long-term nonresidents, then that program must be fixed to eliminate the problems.
You can read the written statement that I prepared for the committee here.