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CNMI needs a better federalization law

Live from Saipan By Zaldy Dandan

Saipan — Almost all of the businesses that participated in a survey conducted by the Tinian Chamber of Commerce want an end to federal control over immigration. They want the federalization law (which was a rider to P.L. 110-229, also known as the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 or CNRA) “rescinded.” But that would require an act of the U.S. Congress which is highly unlikely. Immigration-related legislation tends to die a natural death on Capitol Hill.

The federalization law’s intent was “to ensure that effective border control procedures are implemented and observed, and that national security and homeland security issues are properly addressed….”

At the time, the U.S. Marines’ relocation to Guam from Okinawa was a big issue on Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. And supposedly, the CNMI’s control over its immigration was incompatible with the U.S. military buildup in the region. CNRA was passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress and signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush on May 8, 2008.

It was also the federalization law’s intent “to minimize, to the greatest extent practicable, potential adverse economic and fiscal effects of phasing out the commonwealth's nonresident contract worker program and to maximize the commonwealth's potential for future economic and business growth.”

Fourteen years after its enactment, the federalization law has neither minimized its actual adverse effects nor maximized the CNMI’s economic and business potential. Quite the opposite in fact; hence, the (unrealistic) demand for the federalization law’s repeal.

Some say it won’t be repealed because the CNMI “can’t be trusted” to control local immigration.

And who can? The feds?

A quick Google search will yield the following informative links:

“The Failures of U.S. Immigration Policies”

“Why the Legal Immigration System Is Broken: A Short List of Problems”

“The Epic Failures of Immigration”

“How America's Harshest Immigration Law Failed”

“Immigration System Failure: Where did it all go wrong?”


A failed and broken system run by the feds now implemented in a faraway, tiny group of islands with a small economy and an even smaller local population.

What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing. But only if the goal is to turn the local people into permanent federal wards while shrinking the private sector, and reverting to a Trust Territory-era “economy” that consisted of a few business establishments, mostly stores, with government as the main “industry.” The difference today is that local residents are U.S. citizens who can “vote with their feet” and head to Guam or the states.

American Samoa, incidentally, still controls its immigration. From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, the territory’s leaders witnessed how the CNMI’s economy grew spectacularly primarily because of its ability to bring in foreign workers, including garment workers — and how this success made powerful enemies in the U.S. As an American Samoa governor would put it, they don’t want to be a “football…kicked around.” Like the CNMI.

And how can one describe the American Samoa economy today?

According to the U.S. government: “Without the assistance of the federal government, American Samoa’s economy would be severely impacted.”

Compare that with the statement made by then-CNMI Gov. Froilan C. Tenorio to a U.S. congressional subcommittee in 1995: “I’ll make a deal with you…. [L]eave us with control of our immigration and minimum wage — not so we can continue with business as usual, but so we can institute the reforms that both of us want at the commonwealth level rather than from Washington. In return, we’ll leave you with $27 million [in annual federal assistance; equivalent to about $52 million today]…not to mention the millions you will save by not adding our costs to the federal [immigration agency] budget.”

“We have grown up,” Tenorio added, “and with adulthood, the handouts end. You will actually be helping us by taking them away. In fact, federal subsidies do us more harm than good because it perpetuates our dependence on the federal government and it comes with too many strings attached.”

Tenorio said the CNMI wanted to “raise those funds ourselves through taxation and innovative financing from the private sector.”

Keep your money, he told the feds, but allow us to grow our economy by not taking away local control over immigration and minimum wage.

How many territorial governors have appeared before the U.S. Congress and not ask for federal funds?

In any case, if the federalization law can’t be repealed, then it should be amended so it can reflect CNMI realities. The law itself states, “In recognition of the commonwealth's unique economic circumstances, history and geographical location, it is the intent of the Congress that the commonwealth be given as much flexibility as possible in maintaining existing businesses and other revenue sources, and developing new economic opportunities.”

Right now, for many CNMI businesses, if not almost all, , the federalization law is being implemented by faraway bureaucrats who have no idea about running a business in the CNMI (or where the CNMI is). But, to paraphrase Kevin Williamson, “they do know how to get in the way, how to hold up one hand and say ‘No!’ while holding out the other hand and saying ‘Pay!’”

Zaldy Dandan is editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on

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