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S. 1634 - Covenant with Northern Mariana Islands




Statement

of

David B. Cohen

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs 

Before the

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources 

Regarding

S. 1634, The Northern Mariana Islands Covenant Implementation Act

July 19, 2007

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on S. 1634, the Northern Mariana Islands Covenant Implementation Act.  I come before you today wearing at least two hats:  As Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs, I am the Federal official that is responsible for generally administering, on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior, the Federal Government’s relationship with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).  I also serve as the President’s Special Representative for consultations with the CNMI on any matter of mutual concern, pursuant to Section 902 of the U.S.-CNMI Covenant.  In fact, I was in Saipan in March for Section 902 consultations with CNMI Governor Fitial and his team.  I was also in Saipan in June with Secretary Kempthorne as part of his visit to U.S.-affiliated Pacific island communities.

Under the Covenant through which the CNMI joined the U.S. in 1976, the CNMI was exempted from most provisions of U.S. immigration laws and allowed to control its own immigration.  However, section 503 of the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America (P.L. 94-241) explicitly provides that Congress has the authority to make immigration and naturalization laws applicable to the CNMI.  Through the bill that we are discussing today, Congress is proposing to take this legislative step to bring the immigration system of the CNMI under Federal administration.  We believe that any federalization of the CNMI’s immigration system must be flexible because of the CNMI’s unique history, culture, status, demographic situation, location, and, perhaps most importantly, fragile economic and fiscal condition.  Additionally, we would need appropriate time to address a range of implementation issues as there are a number of Federal agencies that would be involved with federalization.  In testimony before this Committee earlier this year, I offered, on behalf of the Administration, five principles that we believe should guide the development of any federalization legislation.

In previous testimony before this Committee and others, I have described at length the impressive amount of progress that the CNMI has made to improve working conditions there since the 1990s.  As I have said repeatedly, the CNMI should be congratulated for this progress.  We do not believe that the CNMI gets the credit that it deserves for the progress that it has made.  However, serious problems continue to plague the CNMI’s administration of its immigration system, and we remain concerned that the CNMI’s rapidly deteriorating fiscal situation may make it even more difficult for the CNMI government to devote the resources necessary to effectively administer its immigration system and to properly investigate and prosecute labor abuse. I will begin my statement with an overview of concerns that make a compelling case for federalization. 

Need for an Effective Screening Process

The CNMI is hampered by the lack of an effective pre-screening process for aliens wishing to enter the Commonwealth.   Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), before traveling to the continental United States, aliens must obtain a visa from a U.S. consular officer abroad unless they are eligible under the Visa Waiver Program or other legal authority for admission without a visa.  Carriers are subject to substantial fines if they board passengers bound for these parts of the United States who lack visas or other proper documentation.  All visa applicants are checked against the Department of State’s name-checking system, the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS).  With limited exceptions, all applicants are interviewed and subjected to fingerprint checks.   After obtaining a visa, an alien seeking entry to these parts of the United States must then apply for admission to an immigration officer at a U.S. port of entry.  The immigration officer is responsible for determining whether the alien is admissible, and in order to do so, the officer is supposed to consult appropriate databases to identify individuals who, among other things, have criminal records or may be a danger to the security of the United States.  The CNMI does not issue visas, conduct interviews or check finger prints for those wishing to travel to the CNMI, nor does the CNMI have an equivalent to CLASS.  Furthermore, CNMI immigration inspectors determine admissibility under CNMI law rather than federal law.  The CNMI does have its own sophisticated computerized system for keeping track of aliens who enter and leave the Commonwealth.  A record of all persons entering the CNMI is made with the Commonwealth’s Labor & Immigration Identification and Documentation System, which is state-of-the-art.  However, that is not a substitute for comprehensive pre-screening by Federal government authorities.  In a post-9/11 environment, and given the CNMI’s location and the number of aliens that travel there, we believe that continued local control of the CNMI’s immigration system presents significant national security and homeland security concerns.

Human Trafficking

While we congratulate the CNMI for its recent successful prosecution of a case in which foreign women were pressured into prostitution, human trafficking remains far more prevalent in the CNMI than it is in the rest of the U.S.  During the twelve-month period ending on April 30, 2007, 36 female victims of human trafficking were admitted to or otherwise served by Guma’ Esperansa, a women’s shelter operated by a Catholic nonprofit organization.  All of these victims were in the sex trade.  Secretary Kempthorne personally visited the shelter and met with a number of women from the Philippines who were underage when they were trafficked into the CNMI for the sex industry.  As you can imagine, he found their stories heartbreaking.  The State Department estimates that a total of between 14,500 and 17,500 victims are trafficked into the U.S. each year from many places in the world.  This estimate includes not only women in the sex trade, but men, women and children trafficked for all purposes, including labor.  Assuming a CNMI population of roughly 70,000 and a U.S. population of roughly 300 million, the numbers above suggest that human trafficking is between 8.8 and 10.6 times more prevalent in the CNMI than it is in the U.S. as a whole.  This is a conservative calculation that most likely makes the CNMI look better than it actually is:  The number of victims counted for the CNMI includes only actual female victims in the sex trade who were served by Guma’ Esperansa.  This is being compared with a U.S. estimate of human trafficking victims of both genders that is not limited to the sex trade.  In an apples-to-apples comparison, the CNMI’s report card would be worse.  We note that most of the victims that have been served by Guma’ Esperansa were referred by the CNMI government (as a result of referrals from the Federal Ombudsman to local authorities).  However, it is clear that local control over CNMI immigration has resulted in a human trafficking problem that is proportionally much greater than the problem in the rest of the U.S.

A number of foreign nationals have come to the Federal Ombudsman’s office complaining that they were promised a job in the CNMI after paying a recruiter thousands of dollars to come there, only to find, upon arrival in the CNMI, that there was no job.  Secretary Kempthorne met personally with a young lady from China who was the victim of such a scam and who was pressured to become a prostitute; she was able to report her situation and obtain help in the Federal Ombudsman’s office.  We believe that steps need to be taken to protect women from such terrible predicaments.

We are also concerned about recent attempts to smuggle foreign nationals, in particular Chinese nationals, from the CNMI into Guam by boat.  A woman was recently sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to smuggle over 30 Chinese nationals from the CNMI into Guam.  With the planned military buildup in Guam, the potential for smuggling aliens from the CNMI into Guam by boat is a cause for concern.   

Refugee Protection

We have very serious concerns about the CNMI government’s administration of its refugee protection system, which was established pursuant to a Memorandum of Agreement signed by former Governor Juan Babauta and me in 2003 with the financial support of the Office of Insular Affairs.  Establishing a refugee protection system in the CNMI was important to the U.S. because of our concerns regarding U.S. compliance with international treaties to which the U.S. is a party, including the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  Even though the CNMI for the most part is not included in the Immigration and Nationality Act, the U.S. is obligated to ensure that aliens in the CNMI are not returned to their home countries if there is a sufficient risk under the Convention Against Torture or the Refugee Protocol that they will be tortured or persecuted there. 

Under the Memorandum of Agreement, the CNMI has established its own refugee protection system with the assistance of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) acting as “Protection Consultant.”  In this role, USCIS assisted the Commonwealth in drafting regulations and forms, trained all staff for the program, provided quality assurance review prior to a decision on all cases, and performed background checks on all applicants.  The two-year performance period during which the duties of the Protection Consultant were enumerated in the Memorandum of Agreement terminated in September 2006.  USCIS and the CNMI have yet to enter into a subsequent instrument to delineate the assistance that USCIS has offered to provide to the CNMI, because of lack of response by the CNMI to USCIS’s requests for cooperation. 

Most recently, the Chief of the Asylum Division, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security, inquired about a group of cases which were of concern to the U.S. Government due to evidence of efforts by a foreign government to improperly interfere in those cases.

Astonishingly, the CNMI Attorney General refused requested information and accused the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State of attempting to “unbalance the scales of justice” by inquiring about these cases and by expressing concerns about evidence of foreign attempts at interference. 

The CNMI Attorney General’s failure to distinguish between possible foreign attempts to improperly influence a refugee protection proceeding within the U.S. and attempts by the relevant U.S. agencies to monitor and protect the integrity of a refugee protection program which impacts U.S. compliance with its international obligations raises serious doubts about the CNMI’s capacity to adequately carry out the refugee protection program.  It is particularly troubling that such a posture is being taken by the CNMI Attorney General, the official who ultimately supervises the refugee protection hearing officers and to whom refugee protection decisions are appealed.  With this uncooperative stance from the CNMI, there is no way for the Federal Government to address its very serious concerns and confirm that the U.S. remains in compliance with important international treaty obligations.  The concerns that we have about the CNMI Attorney General’s letter are very serious and would not be mitigated if the CNMI were to issue decisions in the pending cases that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found to be appropriate given the facts and applicable law.

The circumstances described above present the Federal Government with a dilemma:  If the Federal Government cannot verify that the CNMI is administering its refugee protection program in a manner that accords with U.S. compliance with  international treaty obligations, then extending the protections available under U.S. immigration law to cover aliens in the CNMI may be the only way to ensure that compliance.  However, making aliens in the CNMI eligible to apply for protection in the U.S. is a potentially serious problem if the CNMI maintains control over its immigration system and continues to determine which aliens, and how many, are able to enter the CNMI.  Under that scenario, the U.S. could be required to provide refugee protection to aliens who have been admitted to the CNMI through a process controlled not by the Federal Government, but by the CNMI.  The U.S. would be subjecting itself to potential costs and other consequences for decisions made by the CNMI.   This is a strong argument in favor of Congress taking legislative action, as contemplated under Section 503 of the Covenant (P.L. 94-241), to take control of the CNMI’s immigration system.   

Recommended Changes to this Bill

The above are some of the factors that have led us to conclude that the CNMI’s immigration system must be federalized as soon as possible.  We believe that S. 1634 is generally sound legislation that embodies the concept of “Flexible Federalization”—that is, federalization of the CNMI’s immigration system in a manner designed to minimize damage to the CNMI’s fragile economy and maximize the potential for economic growth.  We also believe that S. 1634 reflects the principles previously spelled out by the Administration as those that should guide the federalization of the CNMI’s immigration system.  Therefore, the Administration supports the Northern Marianas Covenant Implementation Act, subject to the following:

·        Long-term Status to Temporary Workers.  At this time, the Administration is evaluating the specific provisions granting long-term status to temporary workers in the CNMI in light of the Administration’s immigration policies.  We look forward to working with Congress on this important issue.

·        Protection from Persecution and Torture.  Consistent with the general transfer of immigration to Federal control on the transition period effective date, the bill should clarify that U.S. protection law, including withholding of removal on the basis of persecution or torture, would apply and be administered by Federal authorities beginning on the transition period effective date.  However, given the uncertainties inherent in changing the CNMI immigration regimen, we recommend that extension of the affirmative asylum process under section 208 of the INA to the CNMI be delayed until the end of the transition period.  We would also recommend a provision requiring the CNMI to maintain an effective protection program between date of enactment and the transition period effective date.

·        Authority of the Secretary of Homeland Security. In general, it is important that the Secretary of Homeland Security have sufficient authority and resources to effectively administer the new responsibilities that would be undertaken under the bill.  Improvements to the bill in this regard would include ensuring that the Secretary has full authority in his discretion to designate countries for the new CNMI visa waiver program (giving due consideration to all current CNMI tourist source countries); and providing the necessary fiscal and operational authority to conduct all necessary activities in the CNMI.

·        Visa Waiver.  As noted above, it is essential that the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, have full authority to make visa waiver decisions in the national interest We would also recommend consideration of authorizing integration of the proposed CNMI visa waiver with the Guam visa waiver program as a possible means of increasing the value of these programs to those jurisdictions, such as, for example, allowing visitors qualifying for both programs a combined 30 days, with a maximum stay of 21 days in either territory.

·        Employment-Based Visas.  The bill would authorize the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish a specific number of employment-based visas that will not count against the numerical limitations under the Permanent Alien Labor Certification (PERM) program, if the Secretary of Labor, after consultation with the Governor of the Commonwealth and the Secretary of Homeland Security, finds exceptional circumstances with respect to the inability of employers to obtain sufficient work-authorized labor.  We would recommend that this provision be removed from the bill as unnecessary because the CNMI will have an uncapped temporary worker program in the 10-year transition period.

·        Conforming and Technical Amendments.  We would like to work with Congress on a number of other conforming, technical and other amendments necessary to fully effectuate the transfer of responsibilities and effectively administer and integrate the CNMI-specific programs with the INA.  For example, the CNMI should be added to the definitions of “State” and “United States” in section 101 of the INA.

Conclusion

We point out, however, that one of this Administration’s principles for considering immigration legislation for the CNMI is that such legislation should be carefully analyzed for its likely impact in the CNMI  before we implement it.  We have also urged that such analysis occur expeditiously: the need to study must not be used as an excuse to delay.  We understand that the Senate has requested an analysis of the provisions of S. 1634.  We applaud the Senate for taking this step, and urge Congress to carefully consider the results of this analysis in the continued development of this legislation.

It is important to remember that S. 1634 deals with a unique situation, and hence does not establish any precedents that are relevant to the discussion of national immigration reform.  S. 1634 is designed to bring under the ambit of Federal immigration law a territory that generally was not previously subject to Federal immigration law.  Accomplishing this transition without causing severe economic disruption requires special transitional provisions that take into account the reality that CNMI society has been shaped by immigration policies that vary significantly from Federal immigration policy.  Because CNMI society has evolved in a unique manner under unique circumstances, it would not be prudent to apply immigration policy designed for the 50 states to the CNMI in a blanket fashion with no transition mechanisms.  The special transitional provisions contained in this bill are designed to move CNMI society from one set of governing principles to another in a manner that minimizes harm to CNMI residents.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, we again point out that the people of the CNMI must participate fully in decisions that will affect their future.  As I have said in the past, a better future for the people of the CNMI cannot be imposed unilaterally from Washington, D.C., ignoring the insights, wisdom and aspirations of those to whom this future belongs.  Although the Administration supports S. 1634, subject to the suggestions outlined above, we are concerned about the message that would be sent if Congress were to pass this legislation while the CNMI remains the only U.S. territory or commonwealth without a delegate in Congress.  At a time when young men and women from the CNMI are sacrificing their lives in Iraq in proportions that far exceed the national average, we hope that Congress will consider granting them a seat at the table at which their fate will be decided.

Thank you.