CNMI (Saipan): A US territory

In the early 1990’s, 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,  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 its overseer.  In the 1970’s CNMI chose to be a territory of the U.S. but the Covenant defining its integration into the United States  allowed CNMI to be self-governing.  Following  integration, protective US quotas allowed Saipan to launch a successful garment industry, ushering an  economic boom in the latter part of the 1990’s.  Due to a labor shortage, foreign workers from neighboring countries such as the Philippines, China, Thailand and Bangladesh were recruited through 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 be in connivance with the local government in violating labor standards, i.e.  paying foreign workers below minimum wage; imposing longer work hours  without overtime pay.  No one complained because  they would be out of work.  When the treaty guaranteeing a favored U.S.  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 to finance the journey to Saipan.  Most were forced into prostitution to survive.  Others endured the abuses of not being paid and working long hours just to eat,  the “guest worker” policy was ‘slavery’  of the modern times.

The stories of human abuse were not kept hidden in 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 take  control of the 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 11/28/2009 to accommodate transitional problems.  On that date, the “guest worker” policy was abolished and the INA provisions on all types of visa took over.  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.  Having any of these 2 visas is not really a relief,  both will expire on December 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 the INA or else, they will be removed from CNMI.  These foreign guest workers who are being accommodated as CW-1 visa workers have been in Saipan for 10, 15, 20 years.

On November 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?

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Maria Rita Reyes-Stuby is a licensed attorney in Michigan.  She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Law. She specializes in immigration and practices in Las Vegas, Michigan, California and other states.  Bernadette Bretana, a graduate of the Ateneo Law School and Ms. Stuby are licensed attorneys in the Philippines. Please call @702-403-4704 or email her at [email protected] or go to for any questions on this article.

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