Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Final Countdown

The gubernatorial election? Nah, I wrote a piece about that but, after a bit of reflection (and a second opinion), I decided to hold on to it for now.

The Administration and contract workers basically agree about federal immigration, and neither will be happy come Nov. 28.

Hard to believe, but when you cut through the chatter they both think that our current workforce is permanent, while the main thrust of the immigration provisions in Public Law 110-229 is to gradually eliminate permanent immigrant (a contradiction in terms) workers in the CNMI.

I'm sympathetic to that view, but not convinced.

I recently heard Rep. Heinz S. Hofschneider say 'development is not more auto shops along Beach Road', or words to that effect. I would go further. Development is also not more hotels if you don't have the local workforce to staff the existing hotels*.

Is the local labor force large enough for existing businesses? I think not, but I do know that there is substantial unemployment among resident and contract workers. If I were a cynic, I'd think someone is trying to keep wages low.

A lot of kids will be graduating in the next five years. It's time to pay more than lip service to preparing them for jobs in the economy. If (gasp) more than minimum wage is offered, some residents will return to the CNMI. It's hard to see how a 'soft landing' can be managed during the transition, but it can certainly be made softer.

A little sophistry, please

The Department of Homeland Security has been criticized for not soliciting comments and, almost in the next breath criticized because they're asking for suggestions on how best to manage drawing down the number of Commonwealth-only 'CW' workers. 'They don't have a plan.' Okay, what's your plan?

'How about a CNMI-only H-2 style visa?' former Chamber of Commerce President Jim Arenovski is is supposed to have asked. Well, the reporter caught it: H visas are for temporary workers. (The emphasis is mine.)

The Chamber is also supposed to have bemoaned the fact that no representative of the U.S. Department of Labor was there to explain the 'CW' visas. DHS has the authority and delegates determination of prevailing wages, eligibility and enforcement for most of the lettered visas to DOL. As far as I can tell, that does not include 'CW' visas, which makes sense because eligibility is based on CNMI labor permits.

Local control? Well, that might have been possible following U.S. laws if the suggestion had been made last year during the comment period on this final rule. It included the CNMI in the definition of U.S. effective on the date of DHS assuming immigration control and included this language:
Sec. 655.2 Territory of Guam.

Subpart A of this part does not apply to temporary employment in the Territory of Guam, and the Department of Labor (Department or DOL) does not certify to the USCIS of DHS the temporary employment of nonimmigrant foreign workers under H-2B visas, or enforce compliance with the provisions of the H-2B visa program provisions in the Territory of Guam. Pursuant to DHS regulations, 8 CFR 214.2(h)(6)(v) administration of the H-2B temporary labor certification program is performed by the Governor of Guam, or the Governor's designated representative.
Ah, temporary employment again. We're back to that. U.S. law will not allow us to have permanent immigrant workers after the transition period. The Congress can change that, DHS can't. The District Court in Washington, D.C. could delay implementation, but not change the law. I'm just a lowly layman, but I think the Governor is lucky we probably won't know the results of his lawsuit until after the runoff election.

Non-residents who have been here five, ten or even twenty years say it's unfair that they can't get a pathway to citizenship. I can't argue with that, but again it's up to the U.S. Congress. If enough residents and, particularly, their leaders join with them it could probably be accomplished.

I haven't talked to Greg Cruz, but I've met members of Taotao Tano. I may not always agree with them, but it's easy to understand their anger, their rage in some cases. This government has failed them, unless they get a shot at the brass ring: one of the disappearing government jobs. In cold, economic terms, it's often smarter to collect food stamps and other federal benefits than to work for the local minimum wage. You couldn't do much better if you were trying to create a permanent welfare underclass.

But at least you get those benefits, residents are told, you're U.S. citizens. Why does that remind me of what poor white sharecroppers were told in the antebellum South: 'at least you're not black.' Their anger, and that of others who aren't part of the group, is unfocused.

Sometimes it is aimed at past leaders, sometimes at businesses and sometimes at the contract workers. People with long memories might consider the Commonwealth Bank. It slipped through the door opened when the Bank of Saipan wangled weakened laws and regulations. A lot of people lost their savings. Contract workers came through a door; they were invited to work here. The small business owners who will be forced out eventually under U.S. foreign investment regulations were following existing regulations: a door. It's not their fault.

The Commonwealth was given local control so it could protect local workers and their culture. The result was massive numbers of factory workers who diluted the culture and strained the infrastructure. But the factory owners got greedy. Not only did they exploit their workers-- and I'm cynical enough to admit that might not have done it in itself-- but they grew too large and began threatening U.S. factories and jobs. Compounding their error, they delayed federalization through lobbying. When the political tide turned, and it always does, it was personal for a lot of Congressmen and Senators and not just political any more.

So we've got U.S. Immigration come Nov. 28, and it's not going away. If the 'CW' jobs are permanent, as the Administration, the Chamber and the contract workers seem to think, they'd better find a solution under U.S. law.

Guess what? The only realistic solution I can see is legislation, probably to offer U.S. citizenship. The next Governor is going to have to deal with reality instead of continuing this wishful thinking and foot-dragging. There is a five-year window of opportunity, though it is going to get smaller every year.

But what if the non-residents get citizenship and decide to go elsewhere? Well, I think the workers and Taotao Tano could live with that. They're really in this together, though they might not see that. Some workers would stay, no matter what. They've put down roots. Others would stay if they're given a little incentive. Here's a hint: offer more that the minimum wage. Think about it; there's still time. Tick, tick.

* Or do we? Hafa Adai Hotel lays off workers blares a headline in today's Marianas Variety. Several hotels have had some workers on 32 hour weeks for at least a couple of years now.


Yousa massa said...

"You couldn't do much better if you were trying to create a permanent welfare underclass."

Right idea, but in my opinion you have attributed it to the wrong political organization.

Look at the results (not the rhetoric) of the US intervention here over the last several years and in each case you will find one underlying theme: those actions put the maximum hurt on the economy here in every single case. Maximum.

Damn, looks like somebody longs for those good old TT days when the Navy shouted 'jump' and the local population said 'how high sir'.

"Welfare or the thoroughfare" instead of "my way or the highway"? Seems a likely theory to me.

KAP said...

Others have had a similar reaction, and it always puzzles me.

How is bringing in the same laws that apply to the rest of U.S. intervention or some sort of neo-colonialism? The NTTU analogy is really a stretch.

Section 501 of the Covenant was specifically made subject to mutual consent of the U.S. and the CNMI. Section 503 was not.

'Maximum hurt' would have been bringing in the U.S. minimum immediately (though I agree it still may be too much, too soon). 'Maximum hurt' would be having U.S. immigration laws without a transition.

BTW: The U.S. didn't chase away the garment factories or the tourists. It did provide for benefits that are more attractive than the minimum wage we've been stuck at for so many years.