- Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
The year in review was again one of shock and awe with major crises being confronted with regard to the Retirement Fund, budget process, Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, and US-CNMI relations. Economic development has been sporadic at best. This year's report continues in the vein of previous reports.
President Obama's American Reconstruction and Recovery Act resulted in approximately $94 million being directed toward the commonwealth. Some of that has already been applied to road construction, school repairs, and a variety of other projects. This spending has yet to result in any tangible improvements in day-to-day [End Page 190] living, however. Gas prices have continued to fluctuate. As of May 2010 regular gas was around $3.90 a gallon on Saipan and over $5.00 a gallon on Rota. The minimum wage increased by fifty cents last November to $4.55, but another fifty-cent increase, to $5.05, has been delayed until September 2010.
One of the problems handicapping planning in the commonwealth has been the issue of demographics. Since the last census in 2000, when the total population of the commonwealth was pegged at about 70,000 (approximately 40,000 were guest workers), the garment industry has closed down and the economic conditions have driven many local people off island. There has been no way to accurately estimate what the population is at this point. Working estimates go from a low of 50,000 to a high of 60,000. The decennial census, which is taking place as this is being written, will go a long way toward resolving this problem and provide for more rational planning at all levels.
In the area of development, as reported last year (McPhetres 2010), two new hotels signed land leases for major investment programs. The NeoGold Wings Casino and Spa on Tinian and the Flame Sako project in the Marpi Area of northern Saipan were promoted as major investments totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. To date, beyond getting their leases approved by the legislature, no progress has been made on either project. However, in May 2010 the Korean investment company on the Flame Sako project did pay their overdue lease payments and promised that they would be going ahead with the resort development. As of this writing, there has been no movement on the part of the Neo-Gold Wings company to pay their outstanding lease rent.
Airline scheduling continued to be a problem, with only intermittent flights arriving from Japan. Only Northwest Airlines had regularly scheduled daily flights between Saipan and Japan. Regularly scheduled flights did come from Korea, which also ferried in Russian and Chinese tourists. Tourism was still way down, partially because of changes in immigration policies following the federalization of immigration in November 2008. This has caused confusion about impending visa regulations.
The implementation of the Covenant Implementation Act (Public Law 110-229), which is commonly seen as the US takeover of immigration in the commonwealth, has resulted in a great deal of confusion and worry in several sectors. The Department of Homeland Security has yet to finalize many of the regulations it is responsible for in the commonwealth while at the same time the US Congress is now facing a major challenge in reforming national immigration laws. Pressure is on Congress to grant special immigration status to persons who have lived legally in the Marianas for five years or longer. The secretary of the interior recommended that these alien workers be allowed to adjust their status and suggested that there are five options under current US law that could be applied: An alien worker could be granted (1) citizenship by act of Congress; (2) permanent residence status (ie, a green card) with a pathway to citizenship through a five-year residence anywhere in the United States or [End Page 191] its territories; (3) permanent resident status leading to US citizenship after a five-year minimum residence in the commonwealth; (4) non-immigrant status similar to that negotiated for citizens of the freely associated states, whereby such persons may live and work in the United States and...