In the early 1990s, news travelled fast about the irony behind the label “Made in the U.S.A” attached to famous brands of clothing because it was misleading. The apparels were not actually made in mainland U.S.A. but in Saipan, a U.S. territory, one of the 14 islands in an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, also known as the “Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands” (CNMI).
Like the Philippines, navigator Ferdinand Magellan also set foot in Saipan in 1521. As the liberator of the islands from the Japanese during World War II, the United States was assigned by the United Nations as their overseer.
In the 1970s, CNMI chose to be a territory of the U.S. but the covenant defining its integration into the United States allowed it to be self-governing.
Following integration, protective US quotas allowed Saipan to launch a successful garment industry, ushering in an economic boom in the latter part of the 1990s. Due to a labor shortage, foreign workers from neighboring countries such as the Philippines, China, Thailand and Bangladesh were recruited under a “guest worker” immigration policy.
CNMI created and implemented its own labor laws as well immigration rules which did not meet the criteria applicable in the US mainland. The garment companies were said to have been in connivance with the local government in violating labor standards, i.e. paying foreign workers below minimum wage, and imposing longer work hours without overtime pay.
No one complained because those who would complain would be out of work. When a treaty guaranteeing a favored US quota expired in 2005 and the garment industry started to decline, the guest workers found themselves unemployed but unwilling to go back to their home countries because they could not even repay the debts they incurred in financing the journey to Saipan.
Most of the women were forced into prostitution to survive. Others endured the abuses of not being paid and working long hours just to eat with the “guest worker” policy seen as a form of slavery in modern times.
The stories of human abuse were not kept hidden on the island, and numerous attempts were made to alert the U.S. Congress and the Office of the President of the deteriorating social and economic situation there.
Progressive groups asserted and advocated for the passage of laws to controlthe situation in Saipan. But it was only on May 8, 2008 that Public Law 110-229, the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 (CNRA), was passed, making the Immigration and Nationality Act of the United States (INA) applicable to CNMI.
CNRA’s implementation was delayed to take effect on Nov. 28, 2009 to resolve transitional problems. On that date, the “guest worker” policy was abolished, and the INA provisions on all types of visa took its place.
Because of the unique situation arising from the “guest worker” policy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security created “CNMI-only” visas — namely: (1) CW-1 (CNMI-for transitional workers; a special category applicable only to CNMI based-workers who cannot be categorized as H1B or other work-related visas (CW-1 is provided to accommodate the “guest workers” who are legally residing in CNMI); and (2) E2 CNMI investors. With any of these two visas not really a relief, both will expire on Dec. 31, 2019.
Before the deadline, the visa holders should figure out on their own how to shift from a CNMI-only visa to other non-immigrant or immigrant visas under INA or else they would be removed from CNMI. These foreign guest workers who are being accommodated as CW-1 visa workers have been in Saipan for 10, 15 and 20 years.
On Nov. 4, 1986, it was declared that those born on and after said date in CNMI are U.S. citizens. Many guest workers have U.S. citizen children who will remain in CNMI because it is their birthright.
What about the parents? After sacrificing so much, is there justice when they are separated from their children?