Something amazing happened over the weekend.
There was a massive political rally.
Thousands came. For many it was the first political rally of their lives.
It was a courageous show of unity in the face of desperate problems and the need for real and lasting change.
And it had nothing to do with Primary Politics.
Thousands of miles away from Iowa, thousands of people marched and gathered to call for an end to the 20 years of abuse on the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Young, old, guest workers, business owners, native islanders, mainlanders and more joined together to call for an end of an economic system based on stolen labor, human trafficking and a weak local government that always bends to benefit the powerful.
It is a system that has turned a US Territory into a failed State. One so hopelessly mismanaged that they can barely keep the lights on. The CNMI is a true Kakistocracy.
The good news is that folks in the CNMI know it and they want change.
We can help.
To the jump...
Since 1999, I’ve been researching sweatshops, human trafficking, trade, globalization and a Culture of Corruption flourishing in Washington DC. My entry point into this study of human darkness was the sweatshops and labor abuse in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a US Territory in the Western Pacific. I’ve documented this work in a long series of Diaries.
Last Friday something changed in this story and it is a very hopeful development. What changed is that people who were not seeing each other as allies, as real people, made the link. They found the courage to turn their hearts. And there they found Unity and Hope. Somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000 people (estimates vary) came together to march and rally for an end to the years of abuse and failed government on the CNMI. The Unity March was and is a massive success.
The workers are organizing. The ethnic barriers that held them apart are melting away as they join together to fight for their rights. And they were not alone. Many native islanders and US citizens joined them. Together, they spoke with clarity: it is time to end the abuse and build a new future for the CNMI—a future that will work for everybody who calls this far flung US Territory home.
This is great news as it is way past time to end the decades of abuse.
This mess started back in the 1980s when the current Governor of the CNMI, Benigno R. (Ben) Fitial was part of the team negotiating the rules of the road for that would allow the former Pacific Trust Territories to become a new US Territory. The document that governed the relationship is the Covenant.
The Covenant provided temporary exemptions to US labor, immigration and custom laws. In theory, this was done to protect the Chamorros and Carolinians who made up the indigenous peoples of the CNMI. The hope was that local control would help these folks protect, maintain and preserve their cultures.
This has failed BIG TIME and has led to an influx of guest worker/immigrants who now outnumber the Chamorro/Carolinian populations almost 3 to 1. The labor system on the CNMI is a form a modern slavery that has harmed the guest workers and laid waste to the Chamorro/Carolinian culture in the process. It is a disaster, but some folks have gotten very rich and powerful as a result. (Fitial is one of them).
While the ink on the Covenant was still wet, Fitial quickly sold out the Chamorro/Carolinian population of the CNMI.
In addition to local control of labor, custom and immigration laws, the CNMI also was granted the right to ship goods to the mainland USA without a tariff. This was done to help boost a local economy.
Chinese entrepreneurs had a different idea. They saw the CNMI as a way to exploit a loophole and ship their goods duty free to the States. In Fitial they found a willing partner to run the scam.
In his role as a CNMI Legislator, Fitial pushed through legislation to allow foreign investment on the CNMI and the importation of "guest workers" from the Pacific Rim to run their factories. Through this exploitation of a loophole in the Covenant, Fitial and his Chinese patrons created an unsustainable economy financed by the intentional theft of labor from wave after wave of "guest" workers. It is a system doomed to failure as it is really nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.
And with the help of Jack Abramoff and the Republican Party, this system of abuse has been protected for over 15 years!
The time has come to end this vile, corrupt and truly evil system and replace it with a sustainable and thriving economy that is not rooted in exploitation, corruption and environmental destruction. And it needs to be an economy that works for all the people of the CNMI.
The guest workers on the CNMI were not the only ones sold out by Fitial’s system of importing workers to fill the growing sweatshops, brothels, construction and domestic jobs on the Territory. Fitial’s corruption also sold out local control and the cultures of the Chamorro and Carolinian peoples. It is destroying the eco-system of the island, as well as the infrastructure and culture of the native population.
Fitial’s Guest Worker program has created a culture of addiction. This distorted reality is artfully explained in a new book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy by John Bowe.
Over the years tens of thousands of people have been recruited to come and work on the Marianas Islands. Many have been there for more than five years. Families have been raised and a community has been built.
But thanks to Fitial’s Guest Worker program the majority of people in the CNMI do not have rights. And workers without rights are always abused.
Things are bad on the CNMI and true to form; Fitial is doing what he can to add even more problems to an economy he has steered off the rails and into crisis. He recently signed into law the Alien Workers Act.
This wildly vindictive, unworkable and unconstitutional bit of poison was drafted by Fitial’s niece when, like her Uncle, she was in the CNMI House (it must be a family tradition to draft legislation guaranteed to make life harder for any poor soul living and working on the CNMI).
Fortunately, the voters of the CNMI tossed Fitial’s niece out of office in November and the newly elected Members of the House are promising to fix the mess.
One of these new elected officials is Tina Sablan. I wrote a Diary about her a few weeks ago (We Need Political Courage. Here is a REAL example...). Her "Thank-You" message to CNMI voters had solid "Crashing-the-Gate" advice for her fellow citizens in the CNMI and across America (it is worth a read).
When the workers called for a Unity March, the newly elected CNMI House Member stood up and challenged the prejudice, fear and hopelessness sweeping her homeland. She issued a call for unity and outlined a vision of hope for the future:
TODAY’S Unity March will be a peaceful and historic demonstration for everyone who cares about the future of the commonwealth. The march does not seek to create or sharpen divides in our community. It will not attack any individuals, businesses, agencies, or ethnic groups. It will not pit any cultural groups or nationalities against each other, or employees against employers, or the local government against the federal government, or U.S. citizens against noncitizens, or Chamorros and Carolinians against all other members of the community. [snip]
A continued reliance on cheap and indefinitely "temporary" foreign labor without any pathway to greater security for the workers will only perpetuate the problems of low wages, abuse and corruption, limited opportunities for citizens and permanent residents in the private sector, and little incentive for young people to pursue higher education and vocational training and return to work here to practice their professions. Arbitrary job classifications, artificial quotas, and an ever-changing, laxly-enforced immigration and labor program full of loopholes and contradictions help no one: not citizens, not permanent residents, not foreign national workers, and not businesses. When our best and brightest people leave the commonwealth for better opportunities, when businesses raise prices, cut hours, or shut down, when investors shy away, and when government is forced to enact massive layoffs because of the resulting drops in revenue — we all suffer.
We can imagine a great commonwealth. We can imagine a thriving economy in which all honest work is fairly valued, wages keep pace with the cost of living, and our quality of life improves over time. We can imagine a community in which people are motivated to seek out higher education and continually improve their skills in order to compete to the best of their ability for decent jobs. We can imagine flourishing local businesses that compete for the best, most qualified employees they can find by offering higher wages and better working conditions. We can imagine a government that looks after the welfare of all its people, and that recognizes the power of the free market, the necessity of transparency and accountability, and the fundamental importance of fair and reasonable laws and consistent enforcement. [snip]
Before I decided to run for office, and throughout my campaign, I have consistently and vocally supported the extension of federal immigration law to the CNMI, and improved status for long-term foreign national residents. I have also opposed the new local labor law. I have taken these positions with the long-term interests of all people who live here in mind. My participation in this march should therefore be a surprise to no one. I will be marching with foreign national residents, permanent residents, other U.S. citizens, and business owners, all of whom live in my precinct, and in every precinct, and all of whom have a stake in the immigration and labor issues facing the commonwealth. And while not everyone joining the march will be people who can vote, they do live here, work and pay taxes, have children who are U.S. citizens, and contribute to the life and development of the community. They also deserve to be represented. [snip]
The Unity March represents a vision for the commonwealth that embraces all people who call our islands home, people who live, work, pay taxes, and raise their families here. It is for all of us who love these islands, who wish to be part of the effort to rebuild the economy and to help improve the quality of life here for ourselves and our families. It is for all of us who desire economic recovery through genuine immigration and labor reform and better governance. It is for all of us who understand that the core values of humanity are respect for one another, and treating others as we would wish to be treated. We are all called to embrace these values, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, religion, or occupation.
Now, more than ever, we need each other to stand together in mutual respect and cooperation, united by a common aspiration to realize a great future as a commonwealth.
Many headed the call to join the March for Unity. They gathered to oppose vindictive Alien Workers Act (CNMI PL 15-108) and to support reform legislation in the 110th Congress (H.R. 3079 in the House and S. 1634 in the Senate.).
At least 7,000 people gathered on Saipan (and some reports said the real count was 15,000). Over on the nearby island of Rota, another 1,000 people gathered to hold a prayer vigil in support of the Unity March.
Wendy Doromal, a long time human rights worker (and a real American hero), flew in from Florida to join the rally and support those who are ready for change. She was one of many speakers at the rally.
You can Read more about the march from the Saipan Tribune, Marianas Variety and the AP (here, here, and here.). The Saipan Tribune posted photos here and a local CNMI blogger posted a Video of march over on the You Tube.
More coverage can be found at Unheard No More, a blog designed to support the workers and their long quest for justice. They also covered the growing business opposition to PL 15-108. It is a great resource for following this story and how you can help.
And here is what you can do:
You can help the guest workers. Legislation has been introduced in the Senate, S.1634 and in the House, H. R. 3079. Both bills would provide improvement to the crisis in the CNMI. Yet some essential elements that effective federal immigration and labor legislation must include are lacking. They are:
• Granting an unobstructed pathway to U.S. citizenship through green cards to guest workers who had been working lawfully in the CNMI for at least five years as of January 1, 2007 and/or have been working lawfully in the CNMI for at least five years as of the date the legislation becomes law;
• Granting a pathway to citizenship for the immediate relatives of the guest workers who acquire U.S citizenship under this legislation;
• Granting immediate U.S. citizenship to parents of the U.S. citizen children in the CNMI on the date the legislation becomes law;
• Federalizing all CNMI labor, asylum, and immigration and visa programs;
• Requiring future foreign guest workers to complete exit interviews to ensure they have no unsettled labor and/or criminal cases; and
• Properly funding and staffing the U.S. Departments of Justice and Labor in the CNMI to ensure the safety and human rights of guest workers and the community.
Please be a voice for the voiceless guest workers.
Please contact key members of Congress, members of the House Natural Resources Committee, members of the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, and members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Ask them to amend the bills to include the essential elements listed above.
The House may pass H.R. 3079 on Tuesday. Things are a bit more complicated in the Senate. There the Republican Party is engaged in a massive unprecedented program of systematic obstruction. We only hear about the publicized filibusters (and even then there disguised a new "60-vote" meme). Just as bad is the process of shutting down Unanimous Consent Agreements. This is slowing down everything and hundreds of Bills are stuck in Senate Committees, awaiting Mark-up. Without Unanimous Consent Agreements each of these Bills will require hours of debate, even if everybody is already in agreement. [There must be some way to hold the GOP accountable for this willful obstructionism?]
The CNMI reform legislation is just another Bill the Republicans are blocking (I guess they’ve never seen a corrupt system they didn’t feel compelled to support).
Still, there are some great people working to get this reform legislation passed and I am hopeful that the 110th Congress will hear the voices of the workers in the CNMI and grant them long-delayed justice.
And I am especially hopeful because the workers are organizing.
Tonight, they are gathering again on the island of Saipan. Tonight they are getting their pens out and writing letters:
Guest workers are encouraged to attend a meeting at Kilili Beach on Tuesday, December 11, 2007, at 5:00 pm to write letters to the U.S. Congress detailing their work and life experiences in the CNMI, and the urgent need for federalization. The U.S. Congress needs to be educated and convinced of the immediate need to end the disenfranchisement of the guest workers by granting the long-term guest worker's a pathway to citizenship. Personal letters received from the guest workers since the July 2007 letter writing campaign have been forwarded and hand-delivered to leaders in Washington, D.C. The letter writing campaign is being continued to change the hearts of leaders in Washington, D.C. and to make them aware of the urgency of the current crisis in the CNMI that impacts all guest workers, and the thousands of U.S. citizen children with non-resident parents who lack political and social rights.
The workers are picking up their pens, perhaps you can be inspired to do the same. Many of their stories are posted at Unheard No More. These are stories of hardship, but also dignity, courage and hope. These are stories we should tell and celebrate.
These workers came from many Nations. They were exploited, abused and ripped offed. Like millions of Americans before them, they have overcome barriers, obstacles and learned how to come together and advocate for their basic human rights. They have come to believe that All men ARE created equal. They have come to believe in justice. They have learned and embrace the ideals and principles that have made this Nation unique. These long-time residents of the CNMI have learned what it means to be an American—we will all be fortunate if these worthy (and legal) immigrants get a pathway to citizenship—especially those with children how are already US Citizens.
We have told part of the story of these workers. We have told the part of the story where they are hapless victims of abuse. We used the stories of the CNMI abuse and exploited the real people behind those abuse narratives to win control of Congress in 2006. We are planning to exploit their stories again in 2008 as we try to defeat out this or that Republican who helped Tom and Jack maintain the system of neo-slavery on Saipan.
In our 2006 bargain to elect Jon Tester, or Jerry McNerney or Kirsten Gillibrand or any of the other Abramoff 65 we defeated, we implicitly promise these workers relief and we promised the American people that we would clean up the mess of Republican corruption left on the CNMI.
And we have a chance to keep that promise, but we are not alone.
The Guest workers of the CNMI stand proudly with us, not as victims, but as allies in a long march to justice.
They have been silent, but they are picking up the pen. They are telling their stories.
They are Unheard No More and we can help amplify their voices.
We rode the stories of these workers to victory in 2006.
Now it is time for justice.
It is time to end this.
Let get this done!