Extreme Immigration Positions in the U.S. Island Territories

By David North on November 5, 2012

Count on the American island territories to do things to the extremes, including in immigration matters. Consider, for example:

  • The extreme proposed island constitution in the U.S. Virgin Islands

  • The extreme proposed sentencing for an immigration crime in Guam; and

  • The extreme power of employers and the extreme governor in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), just north of Guam.

Until a few days ago the proposed constitution of the U.S. Virgin Islands (it currently does not have a constitution) contained provisions that should cause a shudder in the most die-hard mainland restrictionist. The only people it would have allowed to be elected governor or lieutenant governor were native-born Virgin Islanders; mere U.S. citizens, even if native-born, but born elsewhere in the States, did not qualify. Further, if you, or more likely your ancestors, had lived in the USVI in 1932 you were excused — forever — from paying real estate taxes!

These two provisions were adopted by the elected Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention a few years ago. The sensible local governor (John deJongh, Jr.) did not support the draft, nor did either branch of the U.S. Congress, nor did the president or the U.S. Attorney General, all on the grounds that those two provisions, and some others, conflicted with the federal Constitution's requirement of equal treatment under the law. Most observers predicted that had the draft constitution been approved in a local referendum it would have been thrown out by the first federal judge to look at it.

Under pressure from the USVI Senate (the unicameral legislature) and all the forces noted above, the Constitutional Convention backed off the controversial provisions at the end of October, but handled the decision in such a way, according to local press coverage , as to muddy the parliamentary situation. Those two provisions probably are dead.

Meanwhile, out in the western Pacific, a different kind of extreme event occurred, this time in Guam's district court. Song Ja Cha and three others were charged with sex trafficking and foreign transportation for prostitution. According to the indictment handed down by a grand jury (but written by some investigator or lawyer) they had:

[U]nlawfully, knowingly, and willfully recruited, enticed, harbored, transported, provided, and obtained by any means D.R., S.S., M.C., L.P., K.C., N.T., Chuukese nationals, and benefitted, financially and by receiving a thing of value, from participation in a venture which has engaged in commercial sex acts knowing [that it is illegal] to engage in such acts.

Fortunately criminals cannot get off the hook because their indictments have been written with rusty spoons.

If the reference to "Chuukese nationals" puzzles, that's understandable, as Chuuk is not a nation. Rather it is a deeply depressed Western Pacific island (I have been there), which used to be called Truk, and is also a state within a near-nation, the Federated States of Micronesia. The alleged trafficking in Guam currently is roughly like a madame in Pittsburgh enslaving some young women from the coal towns of Eastern Kentucky during the depths of the Great Depression; Guam, by island standards, is prosperous while Chuuk is terribly poor.

The extreme event mentioned earlier was the decision of the federal judge to give Song Ja Cha, who is 70, a life sentence for her crimes. Hold the applause, please, because though the clumsy indictment was handed down back in 2008, the guilty verdict has been appealed to the Ninth Circuit, so it may be years before justice is done.

Users of PACER, the federal courts' electronic record system can read the indictment under the U.S. district court for Guam at case 1:08-cr-00008. The U.S. Department of Justice issued a press release on the sentencing.

A couple of dozen miles north of Guam lie the islands of CNMI, where the extremes are multiple. This is where the garment sweatshops of the 1990s flourished and where nonimmigrant workers, primarily from China and the Philippines, were so badly treated.

This is the set of islands whose population, because of extremely lax migration policies (designed for employers), went from about 12,000 in 1970 to about 70,000 in 2005, a nearly six-fold increase in a period of 35 years.

One extreme is the sitting governor, Benigno Fitial, the last of disgraced sweatshop lobbyist Jack Abramoff's allies to hold elected office. Fitial, who continues to advance the cause of the islands' exploitative employers (with the help of the Obama administration's Department of Homeland Security) was nearly impeached by the lower house of the territorial legislature last month, but escaped by a single vote. Charges of corruption and mismanagement not related to immigration got him into trouble.

Here's an example of the bad management: The CNMI probably is the only jurisdiction under the U.S. flag where a public hospital system is in such financial trouble that the government of the Philippines has warned its own citizens not to take jobs there (as nonimmigrant workers) on the grounds that they may not get paid.

Not paying nonimigrants their salaries regularly, but keeping them on the job, is said to happen frequently in these islands, at least in part because of the way that the mainland DHS has handled the status of the remaining guest workers. To stay in legal status they must get a note from their employer that they are, in fact, employees, and this, it has been charged, prevents those workers from complaining to authorities about the lack of wages.

Several years ago, as we noted in an earlier blog, Congress voted to extend the mainland immigration law to these islands; it had been the lack of such an arrangement earlier that had allowed the sweatshop employers to treat their workers badly because local — not national — authorities controlled immigration. DHS was given the task of handling the transition from local to national immigration control and my sense is that they have taken advice only from local employers and have disregarded the legitimate needs of the temporary workers while doing little to tighten the local labor market to encourage citizens (mostly indigenous) to work in the local economy.

These foreign workers, who arrived legally in the United States, are now being treated much less well than the beneficiaries of the DACA amnesty, all of whom, by definition, arrived illegally. Governor Fitial has seen to it that very few of them will ever get green cards or get to be citizens and this preserves the rule of the local elite.

For more on immigration in these islands and other misgovernment there see the outspoken website Unheard No More.

If you are a real political junkie, and will be watching election returns avidly Tuesday night, as I will, be aware that there is a contest that will — because of the international date line — provide some results Tuesday morning, and maybe even Monday night. The governor is not up for re-election this time, but he is opposing the re-election bid of the non-voting delegate, Killi Sablan. While Sablan is not particularly enlightened on immigration matters, he is (at least currently) a foe of the governor, so I am rooting for him.

Sablan is an independent who sits with the Democrats in the House; Fitial, at his last election, ran as a candidate of the local Commonwealth Party which is well to the right of the Republican party; he has since re-joined the GOP, at least nationally. Ties to the national parties are very loose in the Marianas, even more so than in most of the island territories.