Of the fourteen islands in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), only five are inhabited. Two have populations of less than 10 people. The latest total count as of July 2011 from CIA sources shows a total population of about 46,000 — down from around 72,000 in 2000.
Ninety percent of the population is concentrated in the island of Saipan. About 3000 are in the island of Rota and another 2200 plus live in the island of Tinian.
Saipan is the biggest island in the CNMI and is roughly about three times the size of the city of Manila.
Filipinos make up over 29% of the population — the largest ethnic group. They and the Chinese (22.1%) have surpassed the indigenous Chamorro population (21%). The rest are Caucasians, Koreans, Japanese, Micronesians, Carolinians, Palauans and Bangladeshis.
Thousands of Filipinos entered the CNMI as contract workers from the early nineties and onward — including nurses, accountants, engineers and factory workers. Due to the economic meltdown in the last few years brought about by the closure of the garment factories and the decline in tourism, thousands have lost their jobs.
Nevertheless, faced with the prospect of lack of opportunities in the Philippines and having established their lives in the CMNI, they stayed on. Some also stayed because their former companies owe them back wages and they still hope to collect.
Unofficial records indicate that some 3,500 Filipino workers are jobless and may subsequently be subjected to deportation or removal. So many more may have jobs but have not perfected their immigration status. As such, an estimated 7,500 to 9,000 need legal help.
Other ethnic groups who entered as contract workers have the same problems: Chinese, Koreans, Bangladeshis.
Some background: Prior to 1975, the Northern Marianas was a Trust Territory of the United States. In 1975, its people chose to become a Commonwealth of the United States rather than seek independence.
But even as an American Commonwealth, its government had control over labor, tax and immigration laws. This enabled the government to bring in contract workers who were being paid substandard wages working under appalling conditions.
Corruption money fueled the connivance between government officials, labor recruiters, the garment factories and their local partners which resulted in widespread exploitation of foreign workers.
Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii condemned the trafficking of 13 or 14 year old girls from the Philippines and other countries who were brought to the CNMI to work as prostitutes.
Eventually, lawsuits were brought against the garment factories by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Asian Law Caucus and other concerned groups. The defendants either settled or lost their cases in Court.
On May 28, 2008, fortunately, the local immigration laws of the CNMI were replaced by the immigration laws of the United States which began to be implemented on November 28, 2009.
As such, the thousands of jobless or otherwise overstaying Filipinos who could have been subjected to summary deportations by the CNMI government – can now argue their cases before a U.S. Immigration Judge and be afforded the opportunity to present defenses that could very well prevent their deportation.
It is no longer the local CNMI government in charge of immigration laws. It is now the United States Homeland Security Department.
Presently, under a US government issued memorandum, in order to maintain or be restored to legal status, those who are out of status or questionable status or whose status will expire before November 27, 2011 – need to find an employer who can file petitions for them in order to secure a newly created transition visa called “CW” (Commonwealth Worker) visa before November 27, 2011. Otherwise, they can be subjected to removal proceedings.
Many wrongfully believe that if these CW petitions are not filed – immigration operatives of the Homeland Security Department will pick them up and ship summarily ship them out. Some anti foreign worker politicians fuel this impression.
Many of these contract workers have been living in the CMNI for years and have US citizen children. Various reliefs may be available to them under the US immigration laws – even if they don’t find employers who can file CW petitions for them – even after the deadline of November 27, 2011.
I was interviewed by a Saipan radio station last week where hundreds were listening. Among other things, I told the listeners that the US Constitution provides them basic due process rights. They cannot just be deported without a hearing before an immigration judge. Learning this brought tears to the eyes of many.
While this is important news to them, the problem is this: The US immigration laws were implemented in the CMNI only on November 28, 2009. No US Immigration Law certified expert lawyers are in the CMNI who can handle their cases. There are a couple or so local lawyers who do some immigration law and whom I respect – but realistically are not certified experts.
Many of the Filipinos’ cases are more complex which would require court hearings to enable them to be legalized. The other major related problem is the Filipinos’ lack of funds. Qualified lawyers need to be paid. Filing fees and court costs also are unavoidable realities.
My radio interview was covered by Saipan newspapers. A week before, Atty. Loida Nicolas Lewis, Chairperson of the US Pinoys for Good Governance – (USP4GG) was also interviewed on radio. A former US government immigration attorney and very aware of due process rights, she also stated that under the US Constitution, out of status aliens cannot be deported without a proper hearing before an immigration judge – unless they waive that right.
Many locals, understandably fearful of the economic crisis worsening – want foreign workers deported. No less than CMNI Governor Benigno Fileal came out publicly stating that Atty. Lewis just wanted money and was just soliciting clients. By the way, many Chamorros like the Governor have Filipino sounding names – as the Marianas were once owned by Spain.
The clueless Governor probably spoke too soon. Atty. Lewis is the richest Filipina woman in the US and is a millionaire many times over. She was a former US government lawyer and was never in private practice. She was just advising people of the rights that they are entitled to.
However, to be fair, many locals also support foreign workers. They welcomed the news about the workers’ entitlement to due process rights and the applicability of certain immigration laws that afford reliefs and defenses.
They praised and defended me and Atty. Lewis in our efforts to inform the workers of their Constitutional rights and certain applicable immigration laws that can help them. When my radio interview was published in Saipan newspapers – like the Governor, some readers also wrote that I was giving advice about basic US constitutional rights and about immigration laws – in order to solicit clients to make money.
Yeah right! Make money from pro-bono or semi-pro bono clients with limited resources flying thousands of miles to the CNMI spending my own money and leaving my numerous established paying clients in the US mainland.
Mother Teresa’s advice: When you try to do good, people will accuse you of ulterior motives. Do good anyway. Cool advice.
Now, if only the Governor and some of the other locals had listened to the July 2011 testimony in the US Congress of the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) David Goodnick, Director of Internal Affairs and Trade – they might have a better appreciation for the thousands of Filipino and other contract workers in the CNMI.
Mr. Goodnick stated that the DOI supported legislation that would give permanent residence and eventual US citizenship to many foreign workers in the CNMI including those who have lived in the CNMI for more than five years and those with US citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident immediate relatives.
He stated that the DOI considered many factors in making this recommendation – not the least of which is the impact and significance of the undeniable need for foreign workers in the CNMI for it’s sustained economic well being and future growth. More than 50% of the work force in the CNMI is composed of foreign workers.
It may be that there may be many jobless foreign workers now and this is not their fault. The garment companies closed and tourism declined. These workers have contributed much to the life and the economy of the CNMI for years. Now, after having established their lives in the CNMI, it is unfair and inhuman to just dump them like so much trash.
Many see the economic crisis in the CMNI as temporary. The US military and private investors have plans to put up major infrastructures in nearby Guam which will require thousands of workers.
Moreover, both Guam and the CNMI governments have requested the US government to allow the Russians and the Chinese to enter their territories without need for visas – to boost tourism and investments. They also want the residents of Guam and the CNMI to be able to freely travel between the two territories without visas.
There is a strong likelihood that these new economic activities will materialize. The visa waiver requests might also be granted. The US government is now looking into these requests and examining security issues.
If these economy enhancing events become realities, the CNMI will again have a drastic need for more foreign workers. As such, local politicos catering to calls to immediately deport foreign workers display much shortsightedness. They also display a lack of compassion for their fellow human beings.
One farsighted respected local politician who is sympathetic to the foreign workers’ plight is Rep. Gregorio Kilili Sablan, D. He introduced HR 1466 which provides legalization for foreign workers. The Bill has already been approved on the committee level – but there are uncertainties as to the final outcome and time frame involved regarding it’s passage.
Meanwhile, the thousands of Filipinos in the CMNI are increasingly anxious about getting legal help.
The Philippine government has expressed concerns about the plight of the Filipino workers in the CMNI. The reality is that the only ones who can really help them at this time are qualified lawyers. Expressing concerns is one thing. Doing something concrete and positive is another.
How can the Philippine government help? Unquestionably, effective help means providing adequate funds for their legal defense and maybe also helping in the lobby in the US Congress for passage of HR 1466. The Filipino contract workers in the CNMI deserve it. They have already sacrificed and contributed much to the Philippine economy.
The USP4GG stands solidly with the CNMI Filipino workers and their families in these difficult times. Well meaning lawyers are also willing to help but recognize the reality of the impossibility of sustaining semi-pro bono or pro bono legal services to so many thousands.
The Philippine government has a moral obligation to help them.
Note: The California State Bar honors Atty. Ted Laguatan as one of only 29 US lawyers officially certified continuously for more than 20 years as Expert-Specialists in US Immigration Law. Email [email protected] Tel 650 991 1186