Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Finally: A (Non-Voting) Delegate for the CNMI!

On Thursday, May 8, President George W. Bush signed into law Senate bill S.2739, the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008. It's ironic - if no longer a surprise to those of us familiar with the way the United States treats its offshore territories - that a bill on "natural resources" contained legislation addressing immigration and representation for the people of the Northern Marianas - who until now have been able to control their own immigration laws, but who have had no voice at all in the US Congress.

Tucked into this omnibus bill - which designates and expands wilderness areas and national parks, funds some water projects, and modifies two existing energy programs - are provisions federalizing the CNMI's immigration laws, and creating a non-voting delegate from the CNMI to the US House of Representatives. (Makes sense, right? Parks... energy... immigration? Anyone?)

Pete A. Tenorio, who is featured in
The Insular Empire, has served as the CNMI's Resident Representative to the US (a position with no real power within the US federal system - and one that, with the passing of S.2739, is now obsolete) since 2002. He is now deciding whether or not to throw his hat in the ring for the new Delegate spot.

"Too many people are saying that my support for the immigration portion of this law was a trade-off for the delegate seat,” said Tenorio in
a recent interview with Marianas Variety. “The choice before the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs and myself was to apply federal immigration laws with or without a delegate — either way federalization of immigration was going to happen.” Given the current Democratic Congress, the long-standing stink over labor abuses in the Northern Marianas' garment industry -- championed by Democratic congressman George Miller -- and the subsequent Jack Abramoff scandal, I would tend to believe him. 

Pete's been trying to get the CNMI a delegate since he set foot in Washington six years ago. And who can blame him? It's a no-brainer that the US citizens of the CNMI should at least have the same (marginal, non-voting) representation that the other unincorporated US territories have. When we spent time filming Pete in DC back in 2004, he was lobbying hard for it - but back then he had the support of some top-ranking (and mighty shady) Republicans, like Richard Pombo. Ironically, it took a Democratic congress to pass the legislation that Pombo was helping Pete to champion four years ago. Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.

But what about the other part of this bill -- federal control of immigration? On the one hand, it cleans up a messy situation, in which the US citizens of the CNMI have become outnumbered by foreign "guest workers" -- workers who had few rights within the CNMI and who were often subjected to labor abuses by factory owners (who themselves were often non-residents, mostly from Asia). But on the other hand, applying US immigration to the tiny islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota is like having surgery done by a surgeon located 9000 miles away from the operating table, using a remote-control chainsaw. After looking at what has happened to the local indigenous people of Guam -- where they are also outnumbered in their homeland, but have absolutely no recourse to change the situation --  I for one am very worried about how this law may adversely affect the indigenous culture of the Marianas as a whole. My distinct impression (despite what people from Guam have to say on the matter), is that the NMI has become the cradle of Chamorro culture -- and, in particular, the Chamorro language. It is also the homeland of the Refalawasch people -- who share ties with the Caroline Islands, but who for many generations have called the Northern Marianas home. It seems to me that the last barrier between the preservation of this homeland, and its total absorption into the homogenized, anglo-centric, consumerist, individualistic American empire, is Article XII of the CNMI constitution, which comes up for a vote in a few years.

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