April 11, 2008— -- Legislation vehemently opposed by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff finally passed the Senate today, extending U.S. immigration laws to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).
The CNMI's porous borders had allowed for sex trafficking, exploitation of guest workers and illegal businesses to flourish on the islands, according to the bill's supporters.
Abramoff was paid millions of dollars to lobby on behalf of the CNMI, and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and others in Congress had blocked the immigration reforms that passed today, according to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who has championed the fight for CNMI reform since the 1990s. "Jack Abramoff is now in prison, and Tom DeLay has resigned in disgrace," said Miller.
"We sought these changes so that we could put a stop to the well-documented and widespread abuse of poor men and women in the garment and tourism industry in the CNMI and to better secure America's borders," he said.
In addition to extending U.S. immigration laws to the CNMI, the bill establishes a federally administered guest worker program in the American territory.
CNMI Gov. Benigno R. Fitial yesterday expressed disappointment with a Senate vote. "I believe this new federal immigration policy would have a very severe adverse impact on our economy and community," said Fitial.
Fitial said the move to federalize our immigration is not based on current facts and does not take the CNMI's vulnerable economic situation into account. "I wish the U.S. Congress would fully consider the GAO reports before committing to such a major policy change for our islands," said Fitial, referring to reports of "budget shortfalls, forced federal minimum wage increases, spiraling fuel costs, and a local manufacturing industry devastated by the effects of new World Trade Organization rules and globalization."
ABC News "20/20" first revealed disturbing sweatshop conditions for workers in the factories on the CNMI island of Saipan in the late 1990s.
Abramoff had for years lobbied on behalf of Saipan, and ABC News' Brian Ross reported some of the lavish trips that Abramoff provided for politicians, including DeLay, whom Abramoff took on a New Year's holiday to Saipan in 1997. DeLay, his wife, daughter and several aides all stayed free at a beachfront resort. The trip was part of an effort by Abramoff to stop legislation aimed at cracking down on sweatshops in the American territory by applying U.S. labor law to workers there.
After Abramoff was convicted of fraud and DeLay was forced to leave Congress on charges of improper campaign financing, legislation has passed to raise the minimum wage of workers in the CNMI to match that of the United States' last year.
Fitial spokesman Charles Reyes said the CNMI government has had no dealings with Abramoff for at least more than six years. "Our apparel manufacturing industry is almost dead, with only a handful of factories remaining. We expect all factories to shut down within a year or less. We cannot compete with China, India, Vietnam and other low-wage countries without federal protections," said Reyes.