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U.S. Department of the Interior - Office of Insular Affairs
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January 5th, 2007



Remarks of David B. Cohen
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs
Saipan Chamber of Commerce Annual Installation Dinner
January 5, 2007

On Monday, I attended the inauguration of Governor Felix Camacho of Guam.  His inaugural address was entitled "A Season of Transformation", and he spoke of the tremendous changes that Guam was about to undergo as a result the expected military buildup there.  The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is also entering a season of transformation.  The forecast for the upcoming season in the CNMI, however, is much stormier than that for its neighbor to the South.

"Federalization" of the CNMI is almost certain to occur in the near future.  Of course, "federalization" means a number of different things, and the final contours of the impending federalization are not fully certain.  What is certain is that these islands will soon undergo a transformation that may rival the transformation that came with the rise of Saipan's garment industry.

Under the worst case scenario, the transformation of this society will be abrupt and painful.  I'm sorry to say that in my opinion, the worst case scenario is much more likely in this case than the worst case scenario usually is.  Can there be Federalization Without Strangulation?  I'm afraid that we may soon find out.

As I'm sure you've heard by now, federalization of the CNMI minimum wage is on an extremely fast track.  It is woven into the bill to increase the Federal minimum wage to $7.25.  Under the Democrats' proposal, the CNMI minimum wage will increase from $3.05 to $7.25 over a four-year period, jumping $1.50 in the first year alone.  This could very likely result in a complete and immediate exodus of what's left of Saipan's garment industry.

One does not have to be a fan of the Saipan garment industry to recognize the danger of its abrupt departure.  The garment industry has in recent years accounted for about 35 percent of the local government's revenues.  Could the local government absorb the rapid loss of such a large portion of its revenues and still protect the health, safety and welfare of its people?  Could the economy survive an immediate exit of the garment industry at a time when the other pillar of the economy, the tourism industry, is also reeling?  I'm afraid that we may soon find out.

The fact is that Saipan's garment industry appears to be on its way out anyway.  In the long run, I believe that the absence of the garment industry will be good for the CNMI.  In order to enjoy the long run, however, we have to survive the short run.  Left to its own devices, the steady downsizing of the garment industry had been dragging the CNMI's economy down to a hard landing.  Pushing the industry out the door may result in a crash landing.  Unfortunately, there is no soft landing in sight—but it is easier to survive a hard landing than a crash landing.

Congress has expressed an interest in federalizing immigration in the CNMI as well.  The timing and terms of any immigration federalization legislation are not yet clear.  What I do know is that the U.S. Senate has given my office a lengthy homework assignment—24 complex questions about labor and immigration in the CNMI, due January 26.  A hearing is likely to follow shortly thereafter.  To state the obvious, federalization of immigration could also have a profound impact on the CNMI economy.

Those who are leading the charge for federalization should actually be given a great deal of credit.  It was their pressure several years ago that led to very significant improvements in labor conditions and protections for the CNMI's guest workers.  Just as people like Congressman George Miller deserve credit from the CNMI, so too should they give credit to the CNMI for the progress that has been made here in recent years.  Conditions here are far from perfect, but they have improved to the point that this is now a place that deserves to be defended. 

The actions that Congress is considering would have a drastic impact on the CNMI.  Why, then, should the CNMI not at least be allowed a seat at the table at which its fate will be determined?  I have testified before Congress, on behalf of the Bush Administration, in favor of granting the CNMI a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.  The CNMI is still the only U.S. territory or commonwealth without representation in Congress.  The finest sons and daughters of these islands are fighting and dying so that the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan can elect representatives to their respective national legislatures.  And when they return home to Saipan, to Tinian, to Rota, why is it that these brave men and women cannot elect a representative to their own national legislature, the U.S. Congress?

I was at a meeting the other day, and one of our local legislative leaders remarked that at most, only 20 percent of the Members of Congress have even heard of the CNMI.  And I thought to myself, "That's the good news; the bad news is that that 20 percent has only heard about the CNMI because they read Ms. Magazine."  Most Americans who have any sort of impression at all about these islands have the wrong one. There was an old country song that went, "If I didn't have bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all."  Well if the CNMI didn't have bad publicity, it wouldn't have any publicity at all.  I'm sure that a lot of people hear "Northern Mariana Islands", scratch their heads and say, "Isn't that where Jack Abramoff is from?"

In negative political campaigns, your opponent tries to define you in a negative way before you have the chance to introduce yourself to the public.  This is what has happened to the CNMI.  Jim Benedetto, Interior's Federal Ombudsman and an extremely dedicated defender of the rights of CNMI guest workers, has documented the unfair and misleading nature of Ms. Magazine's recent article on Saipan.  But do you know what struck me about that article?  Not a single islander was quoted.  This was supposed to be a comprehensive story about Saipan, and not a single islander was quoted.  There were a couple of mentions of former Governor Pedro P. Tenorio—Teno—but he was the only islander that was even mentioned in that whole long article.  If you read that article, you could easily conclude that the only people on these islands are greedy businessmen, exploited workers and the occasional visiting politico or lobbyist.  No indigenous people.  No indigenous culture.  It's as if you didn't exist.  And nobody is going to care about your well-being if they don't know that you exist.

The political leaders in Washington need to know who you are.  They need to see your face.  They need to hear your voice.  You need to introduce yourself.

The political leaders in Washington need to meet Chamorros.  They need to meet Carolinians.  They need to meet Filipinos, Koreans, and people from across Asia and around the world who have made these islands their home.  They need to meet small business owners who are struggling to survive.  They need to meet working men and women who are afraid of losing their jobs.  They need to meet men and women who are back from Iraq, and widows who lost their husbands there.  They need to meet social service workers who can barely cope with this tidal wave of human need.  They need to meet the clergy.  They need to meet the Manamko.  They need to meet young people who don't want to be forced from home to find their future.  They need to see the human face of the Northern Mariana Islands.  I realize that you can't all afford to just pick up and fly to Washington to meet your leaders.  But if you can do it, now is the time.

The political leaders in Washington need to meet the people who would suffer if there is a fiscal and economic meltdown in the CNMI.  The garment factory owners would not suffer—they could simply move their operations to places where workers get paid pennies and have no rights.  Jack Abramoff would not suffer.  Tom DeLay would not suffer.  The people who would suffer are the people that everyone claims to have sympathy for—workers, small business owners, Manamko, mothers, children.

Ladies and gentlemen, I address you tonight not as members of the business community, but as members of the entire community.  In times of crisis, there can only be one community.  If any portion of this community is at risk, then everyone is at risk.  You are all in the same boat, and if that boat sinks, then everyone drowns.

It is important for this community to come together now because Washington needs to hear your voice.  And in order to be heard, you need to speak with one voice.  For a community this small, Washington simply will not take the time to decipher many voices speaking in cacophony.  That's why it's so important to transcend the divisions that exist in this community to find the common ground.  Businesses in the CNMI right now just want to survive.  Workers want to make sure that their rights are protected, and that they can earn decent wages to support their families.  Everyone wants to protect jobs.  Everyone wants a strong economy.  Everyone wants good infrastructure.  Everyone wants a local government that has the resources to provide the critical services that the people need.  There is no reason why this community cannot come together behind an agenda that addresses the legitimate concerns of the new Congress but protects the legitimate interests of every segment of this society.  And if you can make a compelling case for such an agenda in a strong, united voice, then maybe Congress will listen.

Well, now you're forewarned that the typhoon is approaching.  As you well know, you never really know what's going to happen with a typhoon until it happens.  Sometimes it veers away at the last minute.  Sometimes it slams through the island in a direct hit.  But if there's one thing islanders know how to do, it's how to weather a storm.  And how to rebuild.  And how to come together when it really matters, no matter how much small island bickering goes on when the sun is shining.

Of course, analogies only go so far.  There's nothing you can do to control a real typhoon.  But there may still be hope that your actions can protect you from the typhoon of my analogy.  Regardless of what happens, a concerted effort that brings this community together can only be a good thing.  You should at least make the effort.  You have nothing to lose, everything to gain and your community to save.

Si Yu'us Ma'ase.