DHS Tinkers with America's Most Dreadful Guestworker Program

By David North on November 6, 2011

The U.S. generally does not handle its guestworker programs well, and an extreme example of this is the continuing small-scale one in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

Routinely in these programs, nationwide, Americans are shouldered out of jobs by foreign workers, and the foreign workers are, in turn, exploited.

The worst of these programs is in the CNMI, just north of Guam, where one of the hallmarks of those islands' highly exploitative guestworker policy was and is the plethora of household servants. There they are all alien workers from the Philippines, virtually all women.

The last census data available on the variable, from the 1990s, shows that fully 10.6 percent of the female labor force in the CNMI consisted of household servants, compared to 1.4 percent in the United States.

Since the per capita income in the CNMI is less than half what it is on the Mainland, you can imagine what those servants were paid.

As a matter of fact the situation became so extreme that one non-reformist CNMI governor a few years ago felt he had to issue an order saying that you could not simultaneously be so poor as to collect food stamps, and so rich as to sponsor a foreign maid.

Think how much they paid a servant in a Food Stamp-supported household!

While, as I noted in an earlier blog, the Department of Homeland Security has, surprisingly, done everything it could to preserve the exploited role of foreign workers in the CNMI, it least it made a stab at decreasing the incidence of nonimmigrant household servants – a population virtually unknown on the Mainland.

To back up a minute: these islands, egged on by the later-jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff and ex-Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX), brought in tens of thousands of powerless guestworkers from Asia, and created a series of sweatshop scandals. After a while Congress took away the CNMI authorities' control over immigration to the islands. DHS was told to work out a transition program to the Mainland immigration law.

The basic problem is that there is a residue of 12,000-15,000 workers who cannot qualify for admission under any Mainland laws, who arrived legally in the islands in the past, and who are still there. (Many others left.) Many of these remaining workers do not have jobs.

As further background, in 1990, according to the Census, there were 1,234 household workers in these islands, and their median pay was $1,576 a year.

DHS has recently issued a new round of regulations about the transitional arrangements for guestworkers, and it was within this setting that it (more or less) faced the servant-exploitation issue.
It decided that to stay in the CNMI an alien worker had to have a job with an employer, and "employer" was defined in such a way as to exclude households. The latter provision provoked much anger among some Chamorros (the dominant indigenous population).

But also, in the grand tradition of one step forward and two steps back, DHS created two loopholes in its own rules about servants.

First, the new regs said that domestic work was OK, but it had to be done through an employer; my reaction to this is that this will probably create a totally needless set of middlemen, and increase the costs of having domestic servants for the households, and decrease the wages for the workers, but there may be a silver lining, to which I will return.

Second, and most recently, USCIS has issued a directive creating a parole for otherwise ineligible guestworkers for "Caregivers of Critical Medical or Special Needs Individuals," in the CNMI only.

My prediction is that there will be a sudden burst of "disability" in those islands where the rule of law has only a minimal influence, anyway, and a whole lot of former maids will morph into caregivers. These, in turn, can be hired directly by private households at miserable pay levels, as USCIS has set no wage standards – none at all.

The "disabled" or "special needs" person need not be so classified by a government agency; there is no demand for a federal SSI or OASDI determination or any other formal action, just a letter from the employer and the caregiver. There is a soft little suggestion in the USCIS announcement that says: "in the case of medical disabilities, [the application] could include information from a medical doctor."


This, by the way, is yet another instance in which tiny alien populations are singled out by DHS for special treatment, despite the sizeable administrative costs of writing, and checking, and publishing regulations. As noted in earlier blogs, other such tiny favored alien populations have included the abused step-parents of U.S. citizens, nationwide, and a handful of retired Japanese on Saipan who are simultaneously rich enough to be regarded as investors, but too poor to pay DHS fees to preserve that status.

There was no pressing need for the small population within this parole decision, though it was desired by the local establishment. If one really needs a caregiver in the CNMI, there are citizens, green cards holders, and nationals of the former Trust Territory islands (such as Chuuk) that could be hired without DHS permission, or one could buy such services (by a guestworker) through a caregiver agency.

It will interesting to see: 1) how this plays out in the CNMI, and 2) whether the agency will tell us how many people get paroled in this category. Do not hold your breath.

Meanwhile, here's the highly unlikely silver lining, under the new regulation: suppose the Filipina maids band together, create cooperatives, and thus an "employer" and sell their services this way to their old employers. These entities might even take on a guild or a union character; the households, after all, cannot hire directly, which gives the maids a bit of an edge.

While I am dreaming of better schemes, here's an even more interesting one: What DHS should have done was to create a competitive market, but a limited one for the household workers.

It should establish an auction for domestic worker permits for, say, 200 slots, with the auction being in terms of wages paid through a co-op run by the maids (to avoid chiseling employers), with permits being awarded to the highest bidders. Then if there was still a demand beyond the initial allotment, as I suspect there would be, the government could run another auction, say for another 200 slots, with the bidding starting at the median point of the prior successful bids, meaning that all the maids hired the second time around would be paid above the median level of the first round. And so on.

The privileged resident population would complain, but the Obama administration could say, quite honestly, that they were protecting the downtrodden while preserving the free operation of the labor market. As it is now, alien workers are afraid of deportation if they do not have a slip of paper from an employer, so they are in thrall to them.

Sadly, there will be no auction of maid slots and no raises for the women involved. In the CNMI as in Wall Street, the Federal Establishment (in this case DHS) is siding with the exploiters.