Testimony Suggests DHS Is Handling Immigration Badly in the Marianas

By David North on August 17, 2011
Recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) testimony

is deeply depressing regarding the transfer of immigration management in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) from the local authorities to the Mainland government.

Having noticed the unending scandals produced by the CNMI's control of its own immigration policies, Congress in 2008 decided that the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which covers the rest of the United States, should apply to the CNMI as well. (The CNMI is a U.S. possession under an arrangement similar to that of Puerto Rico.) The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the main responsibility for the transfer.

The testimony is distressing not only for the bad news it brings, but even more so for the way it hides the (unpleasant) realities of how immigration policy has worked in, and has distorted, these once lovely islands north of Guam.

Mostly by reading between the lines, one learns:

  • DHS has mauled the transfer process;

  • It has peculiar spending priorities in the CNMI, heavily tilted toward construction;

  • The local government in the islands is fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve the current, highly inequitable balance of ethnic power in the CNMI; and

  • An absolute majority of the islands' labor force, currently predominantly nonimmigrant aliens with no rights to green card status, will be in immigration limbo by November 27.

What you would never learn from the testimony is that local CNMI politicians, by and large indigenous males seeking short-term economic advantages, created all the underlying problems by encouraging massive nonimmigrant admissions for decades. Prominent among these politicians is the current governor, Benigno Fitial, the only surviving elected official under the U.S. flag who was openly allied to the twice-convicted ex-lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. Abramoff was, for years, highly successful in defending the interests of the owners of the now-closed, alien-exploiting garment sweatshops on Saipan. (For more background information see this blog.)

Nor would you learn from GAO anything about the almost Persian Gulf-type of labor and ethnic relations that still prevails in the CNMI, with the indigenous people (Chamorros and Carolinians) possessing all the votes and all the power, while most of the actual work of the society is done by nonimmigrant workers, largely from Asia. (Mainland people and corporations play only minor roles in the CNMI.)

The indigenous population, I learned when I was with the Department of Interior and visited these islands, rarely does factory, farm, or tourist industry work, rarely goes to graduate school, is reluctant to teach their own children (another job thrust on migrants), and strongly prefers to work in CNMI government jobs where, until recently, you could retire at full pay after 20 years of service. Given these proclivities, the kinds of work that the locals avoid is done by others.

The power structure of the society is so twisted that a former (open borders) governor, Froilan Tenorio, felt obliged to tell his indigenous constituents, in writing, that one could not be so poor as to receive Food Stamps and at the same time so rich as to be qualified to sponsor and hire alien household servants. (The migrants themselves, of course, were not eligible for Food Stamps.)

DHS has been thrust into this messy situation, and if you can read through the opaque and ultra-mild GAO testimony, you can find numerous instances of under-performance and non-performance.

On a more positive note, however, there is no hint, and probably no evidence, that the DHS people have picked up the corrupt patterns of their island predecessors in the immigration-management business, which was often noted in the local press when I was working for Interior's Office of Insular Affairs a dozen years ago. If that is the case, and I have no reason to doubt it, that is something else that GAO ignored.

On the other hand, the GAO testimony before the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs on July 14 did mention many of the challenges and some small – very small – achievements of DHS in the islands.

For instance, given the lax past policies of the CNMI government, there are plenty of illegal aliens in the islands, and it is now the task of ICE to weed out at least some of them. What ICE has done so far, according to GAO, would make the Mainland deportation policies of the Obama administration look vigorous. ICE has:

Identified potential INA violators: 1,654

Started proceedings against: 236

Rendered decisions against: 133

Actually removed: 48

That's a 34-to-one ratio between suspects and deportations. One reason why there have been so few removals, GAO suggests in a footnote, is that there is not a single ICE attorney in the islands; when one of them must appear in court, it is done by closed circuit TV, with the lawyer being in Hawaii.

Another accomplishment, according to GAO, is that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has taken over the inspection of arriving overseas passengers at the jurisdiction's two international airports, the main one on Saipan, and another on the island of Rota, which has about 3,000 residents. There's also a small airport on the third populated island, Tinian, and I have landed at them all. (At Tinian the plane was so small that I was in the co-pilot's seat.)

Bear in mind that while the inspection facilities at the two international airports were not state-of-the-art under the CNMI management, they were in place and all CBP had to do was to move in. That agency, however, according to the GAO testimony, "expects to complete the renovations in both Saipan and Rota by September 2011, at the total cost of $14.2 million." Earlier in the text GAO said that the Saipan facility included "approximately 14,000 square feet of inspection space at the Saipan International Airport."

If you ignore the tiny facility at Rota, which in my experience is operated only eight hours a day, and if you compare the two numbers above and you get $1,000 a square foot (!) for the renovation costs, and this in a place where (alien) construction labor is dirt cheap. This is not for new construction, mind you, where you need floors and exterior walls and roofs – this is for fixing something within a complete (and not very old) structure.

So, while DHS will not spend, say, $150,000-200,000 a year to place a full-time immigration attorney in the islands, it will spend $14.2 million on overhauling already functional inspection facilities. Distressing.

Stepping back a minute, you might ask (as GAO does not), why the U.S. government funds an international inspection facility on an island (Rota) with some 3,000 residents that is within 50 miles of Saipan? There is only a tiny tourist industry on Rota with six small hotels, and some 115 rooms, according to a current website.

Speaking of islands with airports, does DHS provide immigration and customs services on such tourist-heavy islands as Maui (pop. 150,000) or Martha's Vineyard, playground of the presidents, (pop. 15,000)? No.

Another interesting, and unnoted by GAO, comparison is between the wasteful funding of inspections at Rota, on one hand, and the support of the benefits-granting bureaucracy, USCIS, on the other. That entity is the one that will soon face the problem of issuing or denying immigration benefits to some 15,000 to 25,000 alien workers on the islands who do not have papers that could be used elsewhere in the U.S. (They had been admitted to the islands under local legislation that is no longer valid, and these legacy permits are going to run out on November 27.)

Well, according to GAO, there are all of two full-time officers with paper-issuing authority in the islands!

Meanwhile, the local government is fighting the federal takeover of immigration tooth and nail. It managed to delay the federals' regulation-issuance process by suing in the federal courts and, according to a friend on Capitol Hill, while the CNMI government knows how many alien workers are in immigration limbo, it refuses to share that information with the feds.

GAO ever so gently touches on this issue, writing: "Although negotiations with the CNMI government have not resulted in DHS components gaining direct access to CNMI immigration and border control databases, the CNMI government has increased its responsiveness to requests for information, according to ICE officials."

This is an outrage. Congress ordered DHS to take over immigration controls in the islands; further, over the years the U.S. paid for creating the computerized data systems in question, and for their upkeep. Why should there be a need for "negotiations"?

Why does not someone in Interior or the White House simply call the governor and tell him that DHS must have direct access in 24 hours or all financial grants-in-aid to the islands – which the CNMI government badly needs – would be suspended until complete access was given.

The problem is, in my experience, that even in such a black-and-white situation as this one, too many Mainland officials turn to mush when faced with island government obduracy.

The one big immigration-management problem that GAO acknowledges, is this: what should be done with the 15,000-25,000 or so lingering alien workers, people who were admitted under the old (and very lax) CNMI rules, and who cannot qualify to be nonimmigrant workers under INA? (USCIS has issued only 67 H-visas to a tiny minority of these workers; the rest were unskilled people admitted for permanent jobs in the CNMI, and the U.S., fortunately, does not grant visas for such workers.)

Under the new law, the CNMI credentials for these workers lapse on November 27. The government is supposed to issue new regulations for a new, temporary, class of CNMI-only alien workers to cover their presence for the next few years.

Now CNMI is complaining that investors will flee (those that have not fled already) because of the lack of the rules. GAO reports that DHS worked on these regs from December 2009 until June 2011, when it finally sent them to OMB. That apparently was still the situation, according to a relevant USCIS website when I read it on August 16. That internet page, in turn, said that it was last up-dated on August 12.

Presumably something will happen to the regulations in the very near future, and then both of those two USCIS officers on Saipan will get really busy.