Sunday, June 24, 2007

Immigration Issues

I was impressed by this well articulated view presented by Maria Pangelinan. This appeared in the June 19 issue of the Saipan Tribune. Here is her entire column.


Discussion about whether or not we should “allow” the federalization of immigration has been lively, even heated. I want to clarify at least part of the discussion. History wasn't my favorite subject in school, but our Commonwealth is so young it is generally easy to access the original sources of our legal system.

Section by Section Analysis of the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

Marianas Political Status Commission - February 1975

“Section 503. Section 503 deals with certain important laws of the United States, not presently applicable to the Northern Marianas. It provides that these laws will not apply to the Northern Marianas prior to termination of the Trusteeship and will not ever apply after termination unless and until the Congress of the United States specifically acts to make them applicable. Section 503(a) deals with the immigration and naturalization laws of the Unites States. These laws will not apply until, after termination, Congress acts to make them applicable either as they are applicable in other areas under the American flag, or in some special way which takes into account the particular conditions in existence at that time in the Northern Marianas.”
The U.S. Congress has a right to federalize our immigration law. Your parents and grandparents negotiated the Covenant fully and freely. They did a good job. We have gained far more than we could ever lose by becoming part of the American family. I've heard some say that maybe we should reconsider that status. Although I respect a person's right to hold and voice that view, I flatly disagree. There were other Pacific islands under U.S. control at the end of World War II. Some of them chose different paths. We continue to benefit greatly from our Covenant with the United States. Other island states have not fared so well, choosing to be independent to one degree or another. Look around.

In my view, it is time to invest our energetic interest in this matter in finding the ways that federalizing immigration will work, not conjecturing about how it will not.

We have been and continue to be invited to provide input that will be considered when shaping the proposed legislation and hopefully, the law, if enacted.

I had some concerns about the proposed legislation and am pleased to find some of these issues addressed in some form or another, in the bill:

  • The continuation of existing guest worker contracts.
  • New CNMI guest worker permits with exemptions from standard limitations.
  • A mechanism to “grandfather” long-term workers who have been legally working in the Commonwealth for several years.
  • Assurance of “customer” access to the CNMI by permitting “CNMI-only” visas or visa-waivers for potential customers (tourists or students).
Some of the wording of the draft bill concerns a long-term implementation designed to not disrupt the ability of the Commonwealth to work on turning its economic slump around.

Another issue that is of concern to all the inhabitants of our islands is border security. The world is a very different place since 9/11. I for one am gratified to see the vast resources of the United States brought to bear on securing our borders. It is not just our ports that concern me. I believe good border security in the Northern Islands is also important. As the military gears up to move from Okinawa to Guam, this will continue to gain importance for the Commonwealth.

The bill, however, continues to be deafeningly silent on the establishment of a non-voting Delegate for the Commonwealth in the U.S. House of Representatives. There was a period of time when the message Congress was receiving was that the Commonwealth didn't want or need one. During those same years Congress was willing to address the issue. Today, all the negative publicity about Abramoff, immigration, and the minimum wage has caused members of Congress to avoid the issue. Having a non-voting Delegate now would be very helpful. We have some work to do to make this happen.

I recently offered to supply copies of the proposed legislation to any interested parties. The response has been good, and I'm proud to see how many people are taking an active interest in the process. The proposed legislation is complex, especially in that it amends or refers to existing U.S. law. I still have questions, and will continue to research them, but overall, I think it moves us toward a paradigm that is overdue.

I've noticed a frequent choice of words in day-to-day conversations. We tend to refer to nonresidents as “workers”, and residents as “employees”. I think that the difference between these two words is subtle, but profound.

We all need to think carefully when choosing words to describe the social phenomena that we have created. Words are powerful. We invited nonresidents to our islands. Many have been here a long time; some have started families. Some of our nieces, nephews, and grandchildren were born of these unions. Many long-term nonresidents are a valued and integral part of our community. The worth of a person does not lie in what country they were born in, or who their parents are, or what type of employment they hold.

Some view the proposed federal immigration legislation as a threat to our culture. I do not feel this way. The proposed legislation presents us with issues about the changing face of our society that many have not considered before. One cannot “legislate” the survival of a culture. A culture will survive because it is honored and nurtures its people. Our culture is constantly changing, in some ways I'm glad, greatly preferring a car to an ox-cart.

Change also brings with it a degree of uncertainty, a state of being that few take any pleasure in. Often, the benefits of change are not realized or understood until long after the fact. No one can be certain about the outcome of the proposed legislation. It may be amended after being presented to the Congress and it may not even become law.

What I know is that to date, our immigration policies, although much improved over the years, have not been satisfactory for numerous reasons. Congress plans to take a very difficult and expensive problem off our table. I continue to support their efforts, as I feel the long term effects will be more positive than detrimental for all people in our Commonwealth.

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