“Jack Abramoff is now in prison and Tom DeLay has resigned in disgrace. Very few people would defend the status quo in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which has done such damage to workers and their families over the years.” That was just one thing that U.S. Rep. George Miller, (D-CA), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, had to say after the United States Senate this week voted to apply federal immigration laws in the U.S. commonwealth.
The statement, of course, carries an extra meaning in Colorado where, also this week, former congressman Bob Schaffer, the presumptive GOP nominee for the United States Senate, identified, in a Denver Post profile, the Mariana Islands as a successful model for a guest-worker program that he’d like to see adopted nationally.
Numerous news outlets have since noted that, as Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall put it, “Marianas guest worker program has become notorious for numerous instances of guest workers forced into prostitution, child prostitution, forced abortion, slave labor, beatings and various other forms of 13th century labor practices.”
The Denver Post followed up, noting that in 1999, Schaffer and his wife went on a “fact-finding” trip to the Mariana Islands, which was arranged at least in part by the firm of currently-jailed former lobbyist Abramoff, whose clients included the textile factory owners who have long fought efforts to reform labor and immigration laws on the U.S. Commonwealth.
(Since Abramoff’s departure from the scene, Mariana workers witnessed a 50-cent increase in their minimum wage there last year – to $3.55 an hour.)
“Schaffer and his wife stayed for free at a palm-studded beach resort and, besides factories, also toured historical sites and met with clients of Preston-Gates, Abramoff’s firm,” according to the Post, citing congressional records. The congressman and his wife also went parasailing.
Which brings us to this week. After multiple stories appeared about Schaffer’s holding the Mariana Islands guest worker program up as the ideal, he claimed during a press conference that he was “disgusted” by the tone and tenor of the Post’s coverage of his trip (the conservative Republican didn’t go into his positions on the well-documented incidents of forced abortions, child prostitution and slum conditions on the island).
Meanwhile, in Washington, the United States Senate on Thursday passed S.2739, which incorporates a provision that will bring the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands within the federal immigration system. The vote was 91-4 – with both Colorado Senators Ken Salazar (D) and Wayne Allard (R), whom Schaffer hopes to replace, voting in favor of the reform.
Those voting in opposition, all Republicans, included: Louisiana Sen. David Vitter; South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint; and Oklahoma Sens. Thomas Colburn and James Inhofe.
After the vote, Rep. Miller, the California Democrat who has sought reform of the laws governing the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) for more than 15 years, issued a statement, noting it is the first time that the House and Senate have approved legislation “closing the legal loopholes that have allowed some of the poorest men and women in the world to be lured to the CNMI, abused, and exploited in sweatshops in this American territory.”
“For more than a decade, a lobbyist by the name of Jack Abramoff joined then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and others in Congress to block our reform efforts,” Miller said in the statement. “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.
“Jack Abramoff is now in prison and Tom DeLay has resigned in disgrace. Very few people would defend the status quo in the CNMI, which has done such damage to workers and their families over the years.
“Coupled with the increase in the minimum wage that we enacted last year, this bill will help put an end to the old practices and, I hope, will help the CNMI open a new chapter of economic prosperity in compliance with American law.”
Photo credit: Papers of Congressman Bob Schaffer, CSU Archives and Special Collections
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at The Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org