DHS Bends Over Backward to Accommodate Marianas Employers

By David North on October 25, 2015

Employers love, and workers despair of, loose labor markets. When there are a lot more workers than jobs employers can pick and choose, and pay lower wages.

Given this truth, the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration is going out of its way to be super nice to employers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (Saipan); this is a U.S. territory lying north of Guam in the Western Pacific.

DHS has announced in the Federal Register that it has reduced the ceiling on the number of temporary alien workers in these islands by 1,000, down to 12,999. Sounds like a movement toward a tight labor market, right? Wrong!

What DHS does not provide is the statistical background for this "reduction". Let's simply compare the total population in the CNMI to the 12,999 limit on guestworkers. The 2010 Census showed the population as 53,583; a subsequent United Nations estimate showed all of 45,425 residents as of October 23, 2015. Both data sets note that the population of the islands — where federal grants and tourism are about the only sources of economic activity — has fallen in recent years.

Let's be conservative and use the larger (if out of date) figure of 53,584. DHS plans to cap the potential temporary foreign labor force at 12,999, which is more than 24 percent of the entire population of the islands.

If the same foreign worker cap were applied to the United States, with its population of about 320 million, we would have nearly 80 million guestworkers in our midst. (There would also be legal immigrants, non-working nonimmigrants such as tourists and students, and millions upon millions of illegal aliens.) The mainland has too many nonimmigrant workers, but they probably number about two or three million.

To put it mildly, the CNMI, where the unemployment rate is three times as high as it is on the mainland, does not need anything like 12,999 foreign workers, if it needs any at all.

The problem is that the DHS staff who handle these matters are more in touch, shall we say, with the English-speaking employer class than with the Filipino and Chinese migrant workers and the citizens who compete with them. These employers (and the local pols who listen very carefully to them) want to continue to have a virtually unlimited number of guestworkers so that they can keep wages as low as possible.

My premise is that the same DHS staff, when faced with exploitative American farmers, for example, would be more likely to stand up to them than they are to the Chamorro employers in these islands. Chamorros are the main indigenous population.

I know from my experience with the Office of Insular Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior how easy it is for States-side staff to identify with, and defer to, the local leadership — no matter what the numbers and common sense have to say. It is a seldom-noted, insular form of political correctness.

What terrifies the Chamorro establishment is that these alien workers might become U.S. citizens and vote the local pols out of office. So they have made every effort to keep the foreign workers in a temporary status, with no avenues to resident alien and then citizen status. DHS has largely supported this posture in its rules and legislative recommendations.

The CNMI social and political structure is more like that of the Persian Gulf States, where powerless migrant workers outnumber the local population, than it is of the U.S. mainland.

One final irony: Perhaps the largest private-sector employer in the islands, the Tinian Casino (a large, ornate place I once visited) went out of business, laying off hundreds of employees, mostly migrants, just a few weeks before the you-can't-have-more-than-12,999 workers edict was announced. A phone call confirmed that the casino is closed, but the adjacent hotel is — maybe just for the moment — still open.

One of the reasons why the casino closed was that it had been slapped with a $75 million fine for money laundering by federal authorities. The last time I looked it was owned by Hong Kong interests.