By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
The National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON) is calling on President Benigno Aquino III to assist more than 12,000 Filipinos who stand to be deported from the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) this year.
The CNMI is located in the western Pacific Ocean.Based on previous US census counts, Filipinos comprise almost 30 percent of all residents in the islands, surpassing even the total number of the native Chamorro people. There are an estimated 12,000 Filipino workers in CNMI who are now being threatened with deportation despite maintaining legal immigration status.
According to Nafcon spokesperson Rico Foz, most of Filipinos in CNMI were forced out of the Philippines 10 to 30 years ago because of the lack of jobs.
“They were critical in developing CNMI’s economy and it is now their home and the only home their children have known,” he said.
A Filipino worker in CNMI Maria Lourdes Berueco said many of them have lived in CMNI most of their lives and have families there.
“Many of us are anxious about returning to the Philippines because we don’t have anything or anyone to go back to anymore.”
The CNMI’s establishment as a US Commonwealth
In 1976, US President Gerald Ford signed into law the Covenant establishing CNMI as a US Commonwealth having its own constitution and government. As such, the CNMI government had exclusive control over its labor and immigration laws, allowing it to bring in contract guest workers through the enactment of the Nonresident Workers’ Act (NWA) in 1983.
CNMI’s efforts at economy building were centered on the development of a garment industry as well as tourism sector in the late 1980s and 1990s. The practice of recruiting overseas contract workers increased its population to nearly 40,000, with the newly immigrated workers becoming employed in all the growing industries.
The NWA, however, paved the way for the CNMI government to allow employers to pay wages lower than those offered in the US mainland, resulting to widespread abuse and exploitation.
The Nafcon said that as a result, abuse and exploitation became widespread. Nonresident workers, once under the NWA, were also not allowed to apply for citizenship or residency, even if they had been working in the CNMI for years, or even decades.
Eventually, the CNMI labor laws were superseded by the US. Federal minimum wage regulations through the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007. Then on November 28, 2009, US immigration law gained jurisdiction over CNMI with the passage of the Consolidated Natural Resources Act (CNRA) enacted the previous year.
With the implementation of the CNRA, the transition period for the “federalization” of CNMI began and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security took over CNMI’s immigration and border controls. The transition is scheduled to end on December 31, 2014.
Consequences of the “federalization” of CNMI
The phase following the implementation of the federal takeover of CNMI immigration includes the process of converting CNMI-issued entry permits into mere evidence of lawful status called “umbrella permits”, which can no longer be considered as visas. This phase ended on November 27, 2011, when the permits expired.
For the some 20,859 overseas contract workers residing in the CNMI as of 2010, this would mean “out of status” for most.
The USCIS can grant rights of residency on humanitarian bases, the leniency will only be applicable for certain individuals: for foreign national born in CNMI between January 1, 1974 to January 9, 1978; for those who were permanent residents in the CNMI since the CNRA was signed (May 8, 2008); for the spouse or child of foreign nationals described in numbers 1 or 2; or for the immediate relatives of a US. citizen residing in the CNMI from the time the CNRA was signed. These four groups are the subject of a US House Resolution 1466 now pending consideration for discussion in the US Congress.
According to Nafcon, HR 1466, even when passed into law, can only cover a few thousands. According to the Natural Resources committee, H.R. 1466 would affect roughly 5,000 to 7,300 foreign nationals, including Filipinos and other nationalities, only around 24 to 34 percent of all foreign nationals legally residing in the Commonwealth before the signing of the CNRA. Most of the rest have already started facing removal proceedings.
According to Nafcon, the root of the problem Filipinos in CNMI are now facing is the Labor Export Policy (LEP) which intensively sends Filipinos to other countries.
The LEP was implemented in 1974 by the Ferdinand Marcos administration. By the 1980s, CNMI had become one of the most practical destinations for Filipinos to find jobs. There was a massive recruitment campaign and Filipinos were hired to work in CNMI, taking flights to Saipan that took only four hours from Manila.
Nafcon president Terry Valen said workers cannot be blamed for going to work in CNMI, saying the fault should go to the Philippine government’s labor export policy.
“ Now we can see LEP’s drastic effect on our people in CNMI and in thousands of cases throughout the world,” she said.
According to a report on GMANetwork.com, the CNMI economy is also in a state of economic crisis and many businesses that ordinarily employed Filipinos as well as workers from China, Bangladesh and Thailand have closed shop. In the report, Filipinos working in CNMI were interviewed and even as some have declared their readiness to return to the Philippines, they also stated their worries about finding no means of making a living in the country. Many are also finding it difficult to scrape together funds for plane tickets as a one-way ticket from Saipan to Manila costs between $300 and $400.
US and Aquino governments should help Filipinos in CNMI
The Nafcon’s campaign is also directed to the Barack Obama administration. Valen said for all their contributions to the US economy and the country’s social development, Filipino workers and other migrant workers should be given legal and permanent status.
“They came in legally, worked hard and brought pride to CNMI and the U.S. They should be given a more permanent status,” she said.
In the meantime, the Philippine Consulate in Saipan has been reported in the media as already having made the claim that the Philippine government has no funds to help the CNMI Filipinos with their immigration defense.
“We call on the Philippine government to invest every necessary resource to resolve the plight of the Filipinos in CNMI. Instead of excessively allocating resources towards its military, debt-servicing and pork barrel programs the government should prioritize all the Filipino migrant workers who contribute the most to the nation’s wealth,” Valen said.
“Aquino should do all he can to stop the deportation of these Filipinos workers by not only saying ‘Kayo ang boss ko’ but by proving it. President Aquino must heed the call for relief coming from more than 12,000 Filipino migrants in CNMI and the millions of us in the US who support them.”