A Lesson for the Democrats from the Far Western Pacific

By David North on January 1, 2019

I was looking over some recent news from the most distant and most obscure of America's island territories, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), just north of Guam, when I noticed something that should interest the Democratic Party (of which I am a member):

  • The CNMI has massive (in terms of proportions) numbers of guestworkers; and has
  • Virtually no Democratic Party, unlike, say, 20 years ago, when it was the nominally dominant party in those islands.

My exploration of these matters was inspired by a recent move that the Trump administration has taken — more on that later — that might actually make the foreign worker situation a tad better, but in CNMI only.

The Election Returns. Last November's election in these islands involved races for 33 executive and legislative seats. There were 66 candidates for those slots, exactly two of whom were Democrats, and neither won.

The Republicans won the race for governor & lieutenant governor, elected three of the four island mayors, and most of the members of the two houses of the legislature, with the other winners being independents. One of the latter, the non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, sits with the Democratic Caucus, but runs as an independent and defeated a Democratic candidate in the 2014 race. That delegate, Kilili Sablan, is a staunch member of the CNMI establishment.

The Foreign Workers. The raw numbers of the alien workers in CNMI may seem small at first glance, but not when they are compared to the total population of the islands, some 55,144 in 2017. So for every resident of the CNMI, there are 6,000 of us on the Mainland.

The current dialogue, and we will get back to that shortly, relates to two groups of aliens in temporary legal status in the CNMI, about 1,500 on parole and about 8,000 temporary workers. Members of both groups have been there for a long time.

Now let's apply the 6,000:1 ratio to those two alien sub-populations to see how things would appear were they on the mainland.

There would be nine million parolees (which is just short of our 11-12 million illegal aliens) and a thumping 48 million temporary foreign workers. None of these foreign workers would be either in, or eligible for, permanent resident (green card) status, and none of them could vote.

Think how powerful our employer class would be on the mainland were they to have 57 million powerless foreign workers at their disposal.

This peculiar situation evolved over decades when the CNMI was a U.S. territory, but a clueless U.S. Congress had granted the territory full powers over its own immigration policies, as it has done, with similar but smaller impact on American Samoa. The CNMI politicians let a bunch of Asian firms run a score or so of garment sweatshops in the islands; the products of which, at the time, were protected by high U.S. tariff walls. But the workers were not protected by U.S. labor or immigration laws. Those employers hired lobbyist Jack Abramoff, before he want to jail, to prevent any changes in the situation. This was in the late 1990s.

Subsequently trade laws changed and it made no economic sense to make garments in CNMI, but many of the alien workers remained anyway.

Then in 2008, Congress finally decided to cover CNMI under the nation's immigration laws, a process we have described before. That didn't solve, or even attempt to solve, the peculiar imbalance in the CNMI labor force, where the aliens do most of the actual work on the islands, but are far too numerous and are treated badly.

What the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations did not do was to either sharply reduce the number of foreign workers or grant those remaining a path to citizenship. Thus they supported the local establishment, which would have been appalled to have, say, 8,000 or 9,000 new voters added to the 14,000 or so who voted last month. Since none of the new voters would be Chamorros (the indigenous population) and all would be formerly oppressed foreign workers, the local political balance would have been changed drastically.

The Trump Initiative. It is within that historical setting that the Trump administration is trying to do something that will, if it is actually enforced, start to reduce the ridiculous proportion of aliens in these islands.

Without getting into all the details, there are some 1,500 aliens, both workers and dependents, who either could not or did not try to move into the 8,000-(or so)-member class of temporary workers. The Obama administration created a mass, two-year-long parole program for these aliens in 2012, and then renewed that program in 2014 and 2016.

On December 28, USCIS announced that the mass parole program was ending, and would be replaced, for some of the aliens, by a case-by-case parole program for those applying and claiming "an urgent humanitarian or significant public benefit reason for parole", a statement giving the agency a lot of leeway in its decision-making.

Thus, the 1,500 will soon be divided into five groupings:

  1. A few securing green cards or nonimmigrant status under the general immigration law;
  2. Those being granted CNMI's special parole;
  3. Those denied that parole, and (after a 180 day period) leaving;
  4. Those denied parole, staying, and going into illegal status; and
  5. Those that do not apply, thus becoming illegal aliens of their own volition.

The 1,500 are somewhat similar to aliens in now-expiring Temporary Protected Status on the Mainland, thus the most powerless of migrants. The 1,500 are not similar to the H-1B, H-2A, and H-2B workers, all of whom are wanted by employers, which is the situation of the 8,000 or so temporary workers in the CNMI. The legal status of those alien workers, incidentally, applies to the CNMI only, as they cannot work in nearby Guam or in the more distant United States.

There is a mainland political parallel to the end of the CNMI parole program. By ending it, as with the termination of the TPS programs, the Trump administration is reversing prior decisions by the Obama administration. Older programs that badly need, in my eyes, revision or elimination, such as the Optional Practical Training Program, have been allowed to continue, and have been treated differently than those with a distinctive Obama stamp on them. That's a shame.

Oh, and that message for the Democrats?

Be careful with immigration arrangements that do not lead ultimately to citizenship; all those parolees, DACAs, TPS people, and the various H, J, and L workers will not do you much good unless the aliens involved can morph into permanent resident status, and from there become citizens, and voters.

That is the CNMI lesson.