A Lesser-Known Immigration Crisis: Federal Immigration Law in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

Article excerpt

Abstract: After voluntarily entering into a political union with the United States, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands ("CNMI") administered its own immigration system and allowed thousands of guest workers to enter and remain indefinitely. Guest workers contributed to the exponential growth of the CNMI economy during the 1980s and 1990s. However, labor and human rights abuses under this system led to public outrage in the mainland United States, prompting numerous attempts to bring the CNMI within the jurisdiction of federal immigration law. Federalization occurred after Congress passed the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 ("CNRA"). Although well intentioned, the existing federalization program places thousands of legal guest workers in an extremely precarious situation. This comment argues that Congress should pass additional legislation granting permanent resident status to long-term CNMI guest workers.

I. INTRODUCTION

On November 20, 2009, a man checked out two weapons from a firing range on Saipan, the largest island of the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands ("CNMI").1 He killed two employees2 and then turned the guns on two nearby children.3 He then fled the scene and drove to the northern end of the island, where he opened fire on a group of Korean tourists.4 He ultimately committed suicide on Banzai Cliff, the site of a mass suicide of Japanese troops during the Battle of Saipan in 1944.5

The gunman, Lee Zhong Ren,6 was one of the thousands of guest workers who entered the CNMI under its own unique immigration laws, which until recently were not subject to federal control.7 Guest workers like Lee came to the CNMI for employment during a major economic expansion in the 1980s and 1990s, which was founded on garment manufacturing and tourism.8

However, this rapid economic expansion did not last. Following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and subsequent external shocks, the CNMI economy went from "bleak to bleaker."9 After the collapse of the garment industry, tourism is the one remaining prong of the CNMI economy.10 The emergence of one news story like the Lee rampage jeopardizes future tourist arrivals, underscoring the fragility of the entire CNMI economy.11 Economic uncertainty has caused widespread despair among the guest worker population, including the breakdown of shooter Lee Zhong Ren.12

Against this backdrop of economic uncertainty, on November 28, 2009, U.S. immigration law came into effect in the CNMI for the first time13 following the enactment of the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 ("CNRA").14 This law extended the Immigration and Nationality Act ("INA") to the CNMI and terminated the CNMI's own immigration regime.15 The CNRA is designed to prevent the reoccurrence of highly publicized labor and human rights abuses against CNMI guest workers that took place during the past two decades.16 However, federalization has created significant uncertainty for guest workers, most of whom do not qualify for a U.S. visa despite their long-term legal residency in the CNMI.17 The new law splits guest worker parents from their U.S. citizen children.18 It deprives the CNMI of the workforce it needs to rebuild its economy,19 and the CNMI government alleges that it constitutes the greatest federal intrusion into local affairs to date.20

This comment argues that although federalization was well intentioned, it subjects thousands of legal CNMI guest workers to deportation after November 28, 2011 through no fault of their own.21 The existing legislation also imposes a number of handicaps on guest workers, including an inability to leave and re-enter the CNMI.22 To remedy these serious omissions, Congress should pass new legislation to grant permanent resident status to long-term CNMI guest workers.

Part II introduces the history of the CNMI and its relationship with the United States, discusses the former CNMI immigration regime, and outlines the changes made by the CNRA. …