Immigration Reform Finally Comes to Saipan

By David North, September 17, 2009

The very worst sliver of America's immigration policy, one that brought both worker exploitation and a population explosion to an outlying set of U.S.-controlled islands, comes to an end on November 28 after more than a decade of controversy.

For years investigative reporters and television crews descended on Saipan, an island just north of Guam in the North Pacific, to document the grim living conditions and the miserable wages paid to temporary garment workers from China and the Philippines – a situation that persisted because the island government made its own immigration policy and U.S. laws did not apply.

Saipan is the largest island in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the newest U.S. territory. It had been, before and during World War II, a Japanese colony.

For years, the CNMI government, run by the indigenous population, called the Chamorros, and dominated by Asian garment corporations, spent millions to pay the now-imprisoned lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, to preserve the various loopholes in U.S. legislation that allowed the sweatshops to flourish.

Abramoff's ally, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time, and he routinely prevented any reform legislation from reaching the floor of the House.

The sweatshops were created when some Hong Kong businessmen noticed that while federal immigration and minimum-wage laws did not apply to the CNMI, the islands were nonetheless covered by U.S. customs protection. They began to manufacture clothes on Saipan labeled "Made in the USA" while these factories replicated mainland China wages and working conditions.

The workers, mostly working class single women recruited by provincial Chinese Communist labor-export agencies, arms of the Chinese government, were forced to sign agreements that allowed them to be deported back to China should they become pregnant. This forced some of them into illegal abortions because of another quirk in U.S. law -- no one had brought Roe v. Wade into the islands' legal structure.

So, for a while, Rep. DeLay and his allies were, in effect, supporting mandated, illegal abortions, a strange posture for a born-again politician. (Disclosure: I worked for the Clinton Administration's Department of the Interior territorial office at the height of the DeLay-Abramoff power.)

Meanwhile, the temporary workers by now constituted a majority of the CNMI work force and vastly expanded the islands population, but were without a vote. Indigenous voters, who preferred jobs in the territorial government to working in industry or agriculture, did not identify with the temporary workers and their local government continued to fight reform.

In recent years the artificial protection for the sweatshops ended as trade laws changed to allow direct export of China-made garments to the U.S. This lead to the closing of the Saipan sweatshops, but other worker-exploitative industries remained. Then, in 2008, Congress finally closed the loophole and placed the CNMI under the Mainland's immigration law.

On November 28 officials of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will replace CNMI immigration officials, and begin a five-year transition program that will bring the islands fully under the U.S. immigration law. The Department of Homeland Security recently released a bland statement on these legal changes, without reference to the immigration scandals of the past.

Now American Samoa, which has had its own minor run-ins with garment sweatshops, is the only U.S. jurisdiction where there is local control of immigration policy. Since the problems there are distant both in time and space -– it is the only U.S. territory on the other side of the equator -– no change in that sliver of our immigration policy is likely in the near future.