Not Your Island Paradise

After an epic win at Yale last weekend, many Harvard students are leaving campus this week to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family. Thanksgiving is always a strange break for me, however, because a few days is never enough time for me to fly home to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. Commonwealth thousands of miles away. But despite the fact that I won’t be seeing my parents this weekend, I have a lot to be thankful for—unlike many of my friends from home, my parents are not part of the 32 percent of the CNMI’s population who may lose their legal status on November 28.

When the Northern Mariana Islands became a U.S. Commonwealth in 1978, the Covenant between the U.S. and the NMI permitted the islands to retain control of their immigration laws, for the purpose of allowing the local indigenous people to protect their islands from being overwhelmed by foreign immigrants. Despite this original intention, however, CNMI immigration laws permitted a large foreign workforce to enter the islands. The workers filled all levels of jobs in the CNMI, ranging from accountants and nurses to domestic workers and gas station attendants. At one point, non-resident workers comprised 85 percent of the private sector workforce, and over time the CNMI became increasingly criticized for its two-tiered society in which a majority of the population was disenfranchised.

In response to these criticisms as well as reports of labor abuses over several years, Congress included provisions in the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 to replace the CNMI immigration system with the federal system. This process, called federalization, has been met with a mix of fear and gratitude by different segments of the population. Many local people resisted federalization because it imposed on CNMI sovereignty and threatened the islands’ fragile economy.  In contrast, many guest workers supported federalization in the hope that it would help them gain a better legal status after having worked in the CNMI for decades.

Yet federalization has so far fallen short of this promise. As former Assistant Secretary to the Interior David Cohen stated on November 11, 2011, the process has been “anything but flexible.” If workers are not sponsored by an employer for a federal visa by November 27, 2011, they will lose their legal status. Yet due to the sharp decline in the CNMI economy, thousands of nonresident workers are now unemployed. Even for those with jobs, employers have been dissuaded by the cost of sponsoring their employees. While workers can apply for a green card through the normal process, the CNMI’s low minimum wage and regulations that allowed many unskilled workers into the islands means that a large number of guest workers do not meet the eligibility requirements or do not have the resources to pay for the fees. Although the CNMI non-voting delegate to Congress, Rep. Gregorio Sablan, introduced a bill to grant a status for certain categories of foreign workers, the House of Representatives went into recess without acting on the bill and will not resume their session until after legal statuses expire.

Having grown up on the island of Saipan in the CNMI, I hear every day about the fear that has been increasing as that day approaches. Although the USCIS has said that they will focus on targeting criminals for deportation initially and workers may apply for parole, the uncertainty of being separated from families and place they now consider home is producing incredible anxiety throughout the small community, in which 16,000 of the 50,000 residents may be affected. People are protesting, writing letters, and seeking legal guidance. Every day there are new stories in the local papers about workers scrambling to maintain their legal statuses and fearing being separated from their families. For students like me in the mainland, it seems like there is little we can do to help.

This unique situation clearly calls for Congress to grant a pathway to permanent residency for long-term legal guest workers in the CNMI. This will allow workers who are unemployed to more time to find jobs in the islands and remain with their families. It will also allow others to leave the islands and find employment elsewhere without forcing them to be separated from the country they now call home. Long-term guest workers in the CNMI who came legally should not have that stripped away from them; after the years they have dedicated to contributing to the economy and community of the U.S. Commonwealth, they deserve to be treated with dignity and justice.

Anita B. Hofschneider '12, a Crimson photo editor, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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