Legislature OK’s Omnibus Immigration Bill

Legislature OKs omnibus immigration bill

By Haidee V. Eugenio
The Saipan Tribune (Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands), March 20, 2010

The House and Senate passed a Fitial administration-sponsored omnibus immigration bill that asserts CNMI control over nonresident workers, and converts the mandatory 20- to 30-percent local hiring preference into a floating benchmark, during back-to-back sessions yesterday afternoon.

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial is expected to immediately sign the bill when it is transmitted to his office on Monday.

'Governor Fitial is very pleased with the swift action of both houses of the Legislature. He will sign it into law when it reaches his desk on Monday,' said press secretary Angel Demapan, who attended the House and Senate sessions with Attorney General Edward T. Buckingham and Deputy Labor Secretary Cinta M. Kaipat.

Republicans in the House, however, questioned the legality, true purpose, and urgency of House Bill 17-25, HS1, which also reorganizes the CNMI Department of Labor.

HB 17-25, HS1, introduced by Rep. Rafael S. Demapan (Cov-Saipan), amends sections of the Commonwealth Code dealing with immigration functions, to reflect the assumption of immigration responsibilities by the federal government pursuant to Public Law 110-229, Title VII, which became effective on Nov. 28, 2009.

House Minority Leader Diego T. Benavente (R-Saipan) said the 'questionable' piece of legislation contradicts federal position, which was also highlighted in separate questions-and-answers documents released by the CNMI and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

'Is this bill legal, in a way that it does not conflict with or violate federal law?' Benavente asked House legal counsel John Cool. The counsel said in his opinion, the bill is legal and also cited the attorney general's opinion on the matter.

House Speaker Froilan C. Tenorio (Cov-Saipan) said the legality of the bill is not for the Legislature to decide.

'It seems to me that the bill pushes the agenda of the governor that the federal government is wrong; that we control labor, not the federal government,' said Benavente.

Buckingham said the bill clarifies the role of the CNMI Department of Labor and gives direction to employers and nonresident workers.

Kaipat said the bill 'brings clarity' on what's pre-empted and what's not, adding that coming up with the umbrella permit is an ingenuous way to stabilize the workforce and allowed the CNMI to continue to implement the local law.

'I urge all of you to pass this bill today,' Kaipat told House members.

As Buckingham earlier said, the CNMI Labor has the authority to revoke umbrella permits, contrary to statements made by Federal Labor Ombudsman Pamela Brown that seem to suggest that an umbrella permit cannot be revoked.

Buckingham also earlier said that CNMI Labor has both the authority and the duty to monitor compliance with umbrella permit holders, and should one or more conditions of the umbrella permit are not met, the umbrella permit may be revoked.

He said the federal government assumed control over entry and exit into the CNMI, but did not replace the CNMI Department of Labor for its activities.

The House unanimously adopted the 27-page standing committee report by Demapan's Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee, recommending passage of Demapan's HB 17-25, HS1.

After over an hour of discussion and debate on the measure, HB 17-25, HS1 passed the House on a 16-2 vote, with one abstention and one absence.

Only Reps. Ramon A. Tebuteb (R-Saipan) and Ray N. Yumul (R-Saipan) voted 'no' on the bill, while Rep. Trenton Conner (R-Tinian) abstained from voting. Rep. Frederick P. Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) was excused.

Benavente voted 'yes with major reservation,' while Rep. Francisco Dela Cruz (R-Saipan) voted 'yes with reservation.' Benavente said he still thinks that the bill is questionable.

Immediately after the House passage, Demapan's bill was transmitted to the Senate.

Senators unanimously passed the bill. Only seven of nine senators were present yesterday. Sens. Henry San Nicolas (Cov-Tinian) and Sen. Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) were absent.

Kaipat earlier said the omnibus immigration bill will change the mandatory 20 percent to 30 percent local hiring preference to a floating benchmark based on the population of U.S. citizens and permanent residents on the islands in a bid to reduce unemployment among them.

The Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organization in the CNMI, is opposed to a floating benchmark in local hiring.

If enacted, the omnibus bill amends parts of Public Law 15-108, or the Commonwealth Employment Act of 2007. It will delete all regulations of the defunct CNMI Division of Immigration and 'move any necessary language over to the labor regulations.'

Kaipat said another key provision of the bill is the reorganization of CNMI Labor.