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  • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
  • Samuel F. McPhetres (bio)

Whether shouted from the rooftops or whispered in dark alleys, the word federalization has different meanings for different people. For some it is a cure for the cancer that has been growing for decades in the body politic of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). For others, it is itself a deadly cancer that will eventually be fatal. Both extremes are well represented in popular discourse and, of course, majority opinion falls somewhere in between. Every other topic covered in this report is locally evaluated in terms of its relationship to growing federal authority in the commonwealth.

When the US Congress decided to implement section 503 of the CNMI Covenant, which gave Congress the authority to federalize immigration and minimum wage rates, there were several distinct interpretations among the population. For the administration of the commonwealth it was a disaster waiting to happen, and many attempts were made to block its passage, including hiring new lobbyists (the unfortunate Jack Abramoff experience notwithstanding). When it eventually came through as a compromise measure between the US Senate and House, it contained no provision for improved immigration status for certain nonresident workers. Nonetheless, the local administration saw this as a violation of its right to self-government under the terms of the covenant. Every effort was made, and is still being made, to neutralize the impact and retain control over immigration. The governor feels that loss of control over who enters and exits the commonwealth threatens the tourism business, which depends largely on markets where US visas are difficult to obtain. There is also the issue of nonresident workers and their status under federal immigration system. Local politicians fear the worst, as a large segment of the population welcomes tighter controls as a means of eliminating the corruption perceived to exist in immigration and labor fields. As of this writing, Governor Benigno Fitial is preparing a lawsuit on behalf of the commonwealth against the federal government to block implementation of the federalization law.

A completely different position has been taken by a large number of contract workers lobbying for a special immigration status for those who have worked in the commonwealth for five years or more. They see a provision in the new law that could lead to special status, similar to that afforded citizens of the freely associated states. This would allow them visa-free entry to the United States and freedom to move around in the labor market. In fact, this year saw the development of a wholly new self-perception on the part of large numbers of contract workers. Instead of being afraid of being deported, and behaving meekly and obediently if they did protest their conditions, they have begun organizing to lobby the federal government, pushing for an amendment to the immigration act as well as a more liberal policy internal to the common-wealth. A peaceful march of about 2,000–3, 000 people (some estimates run as high as 10, 000) in March 2008 demonstrated the power of this group. The crowd gathered on Beach Road [End Page 132] and walked peacefully to the American Memorial Park, where rallies were carried out, speeches made, and people of all ethnicities representing the nonresident worker population and their local supporters gathered to share their views. The Dekada Movement is the first and largest of these groups, primarily but not exclusively made up of Filipino members. In addition, the leaders of the different groups have taken to writing letters to the editors of newspapers on a variety of relevant topics. This approach had never even been considered before. Meanwhile, human-rights activists welcomed the federalization of the immigration system as a means to combat an increasing level of human trafficking in the commonwealth.

In reaction, an indigenous rights group called Taotao Tano (People of the Land), led by indigenous rights activist Gregorio Cruz, began lobbying against special treatment of contract workers as one of its priorities. Other, more radical groups waited in the wings.

Earlier in 2007 the US Congress passed a new minimum-wage bill for the Mariana Islands, bundled with about fifty other unrelated pieces of...


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