An important question in Saipan
Like many, I often examine my life and ask questions: Why was I in that place? Why did I do that? How come I became a lawyer and not a businessman or engineer? What made me live in the San Francisco Bay Area and not in Chicago or New York or the Philippines? Why do I write these column articles in various publications? How do I make decisions? What are the priorities in my life? Why am I involve in certain causes?
I repeatedly need to ask myself these questions. They are relevant checks to see if I am not victimizing myself. Our egos make us all too prone at times to delude ourselves into thinking that the good we seek to do for others is borne out of our own goodness and maybe even believe that we are doing it for God.
A few days ago, while in the midst of answering questions during a four hour immigration law forum I conducted — with some one hundred thirty people in attendance and the event being covered on local TV, radio and newspapers, during a lull, this question flashed into my mind: What am I doing here in Saipan — in this small beautiful island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean thousands of miles from my home in the San Francisco Bay Area — giving this presentation?
When I got back to my hotel, due to the mental stimulation provided by the forum, my mind remained active even if I was physically exhausted and a bit jet lagged. The question I asked myself during the forum stayed in my mind.
I knew little about Saipan four months ago. I never thought that I would ever come here. I had seen some WW II movies where Saipan was the setting and from these knew that many major battles with the Japanese were fought here. I did not even know its exact location except that it was somewhere near Guam.
Was Saipan part of Micronesia? Was it part of Palau? Was it an independent country? I pleaded ignorance to the answers to these question. I had no reason to know anything about Saipan before four months ago. I knew more about Guam because PAL flights to the Philippines often stopped there for fuel stops. I remember from my elementary history class that the Filipino lawyer nationalist Apolinario Mabini was exiled by the Americans in Guam. But nearby Saipan was terra incognito to me.
Four months ago, during a teleconference meeting of members and directors of the United States of Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG), Dr. Celia Lamkin, a Filipina doctor based in Saipan mentioned that thousands of Filipinos in her part of the world were in terrible fear of being deported and did not know what to do.
In subsequent communications with her plus my own personal research, I learned these: The island of Saipan was one of 15 islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). These islands became part of the Trust Territory of the United States after WWII — part of the spoils of war with Japan. Only three islands are inhabited: Rota, Tinian and Saipan. CNMI became a Commonwealth of the United States in 1975. It had its own labor laws and immigration laws independent of the federal laws of the U.S. In 2007, some US labor law standards became applicable. On November 28, 2009, the US immigration laws replaced the local immigration laws.
Since the late 1980s, hundreds of Filipino workers have been coming to the CNMI to work in various industries. Practically every business establishment — from low tech to high tech — has Filipino employees. Many also work as domestic workers.
The CNMI economy boomed when designer brand garment companies established factories in Saipan and tourists from Japan came in droves. However, the U.S. lifting of import restrictions of garments from China killed the garment manufacturing industry in Saipan. Japanese tourists also stopped coming due to the overall global economic recession and the devastating effects of the super tsunami in Japan about two years ago.
The current CNMI economy is in meltdown mode. Foreign workers including thousands of Filipinos have been laid off. These lay offs or some technical reasons have caused many to be in illegal or questionable immigration status. Those who were laid off but not overstaying were given up to Nov. 28, 2011 to find new employers to file for a newly created type non-immigrant visa referred to as a CW visa for CNMI workers only.
Thousands could not find employers and feared that they would be rounded up by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, detained and summarily deported. The Republican governor who openly campaigns for the removal of foreign workers fueled that fear giving the impression that this would happen. Some left.
Many of the Filipinos and other foreign workers have established lives in the CNMI. Many have US citizen children. Like so many undocumented aliens in the mainland, they also do not want to leave as they feel they have nothing to return to in their homelands. And even if they do not have regular jobs, they manage to survive by planting vegetables or engaging in some small business or doing odd jobs.
As a bar certified expert on US immigration law, I know that they have due process rights under the US Constitution. They cannot be summarily deported. They are entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge before whom they can present all kinds of applications for relief from deportation or removal. I know also that the governor cannot deprive them of these basic rights. Immigration law is federal law over which the governor has no enforcement or supervisory powers.
Understandably, because US immigration law has been in effect only for two years, there are no certified expert lawyers on this area of the law. About two or three lawyers do some immigration law but then there is the issue of legal fees which are usually two hundred to three hundred dollars an hour.
This was the picture: Thousands of Filipinos, many with families, who have lived in the CNMI for years deathly afraid of being deported and not knowing what to do and who to turn to. A Filipino lawyer who lives thousands of miles in the San Francisco Bay Area knows what to do to help them and can make a difference in their lives – but struggling with himself – questioning whether this problem was his responsibility.
I knew that by traveling thousands of miles to Saipan to provide vital legal information to so many, I could help dispel their fears and provide solutions to their immigration problems. I also knew I would lose some money not because I would provide this humanitarian service for free but because I would be losing income during my absence from my busy practice in the Bay Area. I also needed to pay for airline tickets and other expenses. Moreover, I risk the ire of powerful local politicians there who want the Filipinos and other foreign workers deported.
I thought: Never mind all that. No big thing. These are all incidentals. True life is more than just bread alone. Sometimes, a situation arises where the good that needs to be done lies in the hands of only one person. But what if that person is me? Is this really the Creator’s assignment for me? Please, I have enough to do. Am I that important? The ego issue again.
We all wish in situations like this that someone else would bear this responsibility and be other people’s keepers. We look around us and above us. But what if we don’t see anyone who can really help except the image in our mirror?
Then we need to go back again to resolve an important question: Am I doing this out of a subconscious ego generated desire to be some kind of hero or just bringing attention to myself? God help me from being such a big fool if I am.
We sometimes also want to cop out of what the sacred within us demands of us and we look for justifications: “It’s just my ego. I won’t do it.” – using false humility for our exit from responsibility. I was also tempted to to do an exit by thinking that this is the responsibility of the Philippine government. They are supposed to help overseas workers referring to them as “our new heroes”.
I communicated with the Philippine Consul General in CNMI. He was genuinely sympathetic but says his hands are tied. Funds are available only for criminal defense – no funds to pay other lawyers for immigration defense. It’s also understandable that the Consulate cannot help as it does not have the legal expertise to help. For all practical cases, the thousands of Filipinos in CNMI were on their own. So much for this “new heroes” thing. They need to commit crimes to get legal help from the Philpine government. Immigration law is not criminal law.
In Saipan, I did two four hour immigration forums. I provided all the legal information available to help solve immigration problems. I answered all the questions asked. Even questions not asked but are relevant, I brought out and answered. I asked the audience to spread these important items of information to other Filipino and non-Filipino workers in the CNMI – so that many will be helped.
I also met with sympathetic local politicians and did a TV interview.
I hope the immigration law information I provided is widely desseminated enabling many not to live in fear and really help them to solve their immigration problems. But even if only one person was helped – I’ll find satisfaction in that.
Some individual immigration problems are more complex but solvable. However, these need representation by lawyers in Immigration Court. Being only one lawyer, I would be delusional if I were to believe that I could provide these specific legal services for a good number of people flying thousands of miles repeatedly to appear in court. Reality must be respected.
I was pretty sure I already knew the answer to the question “What am I doing here in Saipan….?” that I asked myself during the forum. I just needed to ask it again to affirm that my coming to Saipan was not about me. It was about thousands of human beings needing legitimate help.
A Blessed Christmas and Happy New Year to all.
Note: Atty. Ted Laguatan is honored by the California State Bar as one of only 29 U.S. lawyers continuously officially certified for more than 20 years as Expert-Specialists in Immigration Law. Email email@example.com