Back in the CNMI: The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is No Model When it Comes to Immigration

By Mark Krikorian on December 31, 2005

National Review, December 31, 2005

Never under any condition should this nation look at an immigrant as primarily a labor unit. He should always be looked at primarily as a future citizen.

-- Theodore Roosevelt, 1917

Over the next several months, Congress will debate whether our country needs to import more foreign labor. President Bush has made his position clear: "If an American employer is offering a job that American citizens are not willing to take, we ought to welcome into our country a person who will fill that job."

What would be the effect of such a policy? Some have looked for answers in our history, specifically the Bracero Program, which imported Mexican workers for about 20 years and ended in the 1960s. Others have looked to the experience of foreign countries, such as Kuwait.

But there's a corner of the United States where we can see right now the consequences of the president's willing-worker/willing-employer immigration approach: the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or CNMI. Over the past two decades, this tiny colonial possession has imported large numbers of contract workers for "jobs Americans won't do." The results should give us pause.

First, some background. These islands are just north of Guam and were seized from the Japanese in the bloody World War II battles of Saipan (the CNMI's main island) and Tinian. When the islands came under full American sovereignty, the CNMI negotiated a special deal: The natives became U.S. citizens but would be able to set their own tax, labor, and immigration policies.

The reason behind the exemption from U.S. immigration law was the fear that the indigenous population might come to be outnumbered by newcomers, as in Hawaii. Years later, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform reported that residents had been "concerned" about changes "irretrievably altering the native culture and community."

But rather than using the control over immigration to preserve their "culture and community," the island elite and outside businessmen combined it with other loopholes (tariff-free exports to the U.S. and the right to claim "Made in the USA" for locally assembled garments) to upend the intent of the immigration exemption by importing a large foreign workforce. Foreign workers, mostly Filipino and Chinese, now account for the majority of the population of 80,000.

Of course, the consequences of a large-scale foreign-worker program in the U.S. (pop. 300 million) would not be as concentrated or as revolutionary as in the tiny CNMI; and yet the lesson is clear. Rep. Tom DeLay, a strong defender of the Commonwealth's special arrangement against bipartisan efforts to end it, has connected the dots between the CNMI's guestworker program and our own immigration policies. In 1998, the Houston Chronicle reported, "Rather than impose more regulation on the U.S. territory, DeLay said, the United States ought to adopt the islands' business and labor practices by creating a guestworker program of its own 'where particular companies can bring Mexican workers in' to fill jobs that Americans won't take. DeLay said the workers could be paid at 'whatever wage the market will bear.'"

DeLay wasn't the only one who saw the Marianas' guestworker program as an important experiment. Jack Abramoff, the CNMI's lobbyist at the time, brought many opinion leaders from Washington for canned tours in the 1990s, and they spoke upon their return of the CNMI as "America's Hong Kong," a "free-market success," a "laboratory of liberty," "a perfect petri dish of capitalism."

So, what grew in this petri dish? The same thing that grows in any society that succumbs to the temptation of "temporary" foreign workers: exploitation of the foreigners, distortion of the host society, and permanent settlement of the temporary workers.

Exploitation. Guestworkers are, by design, not treated by the same standards as the native population. The inevitable result of the guestworker's servile relationship to his employer is abuse; this was true for Mexican farm workers in the Southwest, and Filipinos in the Persian Gulf. The guestworkers in Saipan, especially in the garment factories, had the same experience. Through the 1990s, the U.S. Labor Department levied large fines on garment firms as restitution for thousands of workers who were not paid overtime, not paid at all, or locked in factories and barracks ringed with barbed wire. It got so bad that in 1995 the Philippines temporarily stopped issuing work visas for the CNMI to its citizens.

The young Chinese women who fill the garment factories (some owned by the Chinese Communist government) had it especially bad. Many had paid thousands of dollars to recruiters, resulting in de facto indentured servitude. Abuses in the garment factories attracted substantial American media attention, including ABC's 20/20 program, which resulted in some improvements, including a cap on the number of imported garment workers. Also, a garment oversight board was established last year as the result of a class-action suit filed in 1999 against manufacturers and the American retailers who purchased their garments (the Gap and others).

The combination of better oversight and this year's sunsetting of most restrictions on U.S. garment imports from China means that factories are beginning to close and return to Red China. In other words, the opportunity to import Third World workers to the U.S., but to keep treating them according to Third World norms, was a large part of the attraction of the guestworker program in the first place. But even as the garment sector shrinks, abuses continue, and even proliferate, in less-visible occupations staffed by foreign labor, such as bar girls, prostitutes, house servants, and farm workers.

Distortion. But moves to limit abuse are irrelevant to the more fundamental impact of a foreign-labor program: the abnormal development of the host society. The foreign-labor program has completely transformed the CNMI's society in a single generation. About 70 percent of the population is now foreign-born, almost all of it non-citizen. Chamorros, the main indigenous ethnic group, used to be a clear majority; they are now barely a quarter of the population.

The guestworker system has also reinforced in the locals a culture of pervasive dependence on government. Fully 70 percent of the labor force is non-citizens, and at least 85 percent of all private-sector jobs are held by Asians. U.S. citizens have an unemployment rate triple that of non-citizens; of the indigenous Chamorros who do have jobs, 56 percent work for the government, fueling a doubling in the size of the bureaucracy since 1980.

The 2000 census found a poverty rate on the islands of 46 percent, up significantly from just two years earlier, and nearly quadruple the U.S. rate. A recent survey found that two-thirds of children in the Commonwealth received food assistance from the local or federal government. The number of people receiving federal Food Stamps specifically has increased more than sevenfold in less than a decade.

The corrosive effect on the work ethic and morals of the American citizens is so bad that, in 1995, the government actually had to issue a directive prohibiting welfare recipients from hiring foreign maids. "Free-market success," indeed.

To address such social distortions, countries often launch efforts to mandate local hiring. "Saudization" is what it's called in that kingdom, but it has enjoyed little success there. A policy of what might be called "Marianization" has done little better: There is a requirement that 20 percent of a firm's workforce be local, but the requirement is not enforced.

Permanent settlement. The inevitable process of permanent settlement of these "temporary" workers is also well underway. An amnesty that ended in 1999 registered more than 3,000 illegal aliens, and there are now as many as 7,000, with new proposals for further amnesties. In addition, foreign workers without jobs may remain legally while they have a labor complaint pending. What's more, all babies born in the CNMI are automatically U.S. citizens, and close to half are born to "temporary" foreign workers, making it that much less likely they will ever leave.

In fact, there has sprung up something called the "Dekada Movement" among foreign workers to lobby for permanent status. They claim, correctly, that "the CNMI is the only place under the U.S. flag where a majority of the adult population lacks political rights." The name is from the Filipino word for decade, and the group originally sought residency for "temporary" workers who had lived in the CNMI for ten years (since reduced to five years). The movement has more than 3,000 registered members. U.S. officials have sent a clear message that these people aren't going to get American green cards, but as their numbers, and their citizen-children's numbers, grow, it seems a good bet they will eventually get at least permanent residency in the CNMI, converting them to permanent immigrants rather than temporary workers.

The CNMI's experience over the past 20 years is a clear warning against any of the foreign-worker proposals before Congress. A new guestworker program in the U.S. would have the same basic results: widespread permanent settlement, increased illegal immigration, exploitation of foreign workers, and distortion of our economy and society. "Only a few countries, and no democratic society, have immigration policies similar to the CNMI," wrote the bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform. "The closest equivalent is Kuwait." This is not a club we should want to join.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.