A BIT OF HISTORY
For years the CNMI has opposed federal immigration and clung to its own control of immigration through many tactics. The most notorious action included hiring the lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
It opposed all attempts to extend U.S. immigration control to the CNMI for decades, but it finally lost the battle when the U.S. Congress passed the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008. This became P.L. 110-229. Title VII of this act addresses "immigration, security and labor" in the Northern Mariana Islands.
The CNRA extends U.S. immigration to the CNMI, but it first provides for a transition period. This started on November 28, 2009.
The CNRA provides for the federal immigration authorities to take over CNMI immigration on the effective date of the transition period (11/28/2009). It also provides for the end of CNMI immigration on that date.
During the first two years of the transition period, aliens who had lawful status on the effective date of the transition period under the CNMI immigration laws are not subject to deportation for violation of INA sec. 212 (a)(6)(A), 8 USC 1182 (a)(6)(A); that protection lasts until "completion of the period of the alien's admission under the immigration laws of the Commonwealth", or 11/27/2011, whichever is first.
During the first two years of the transition period, aliens who were permitted to work on the effective date of the transition period under the CNMI laws are deemed to have US authority to work during their protected period of presence in the CNMI.
Although the CNRA states that its purpose is to provide a phase-out of the "nonresident contract worker program of the Commonwealth" and a phase-in of US immigration, the law actually cuts off CNMI authority over immigration on the transition effective date (11/28/2009) and puts the entire management of the transition program regarding alien admission and labor under the U.S. authorities. The CNRA phase-out relates only to presence and ability to work of aliens admitted under the prior CNMI laws. The US transition program also, in some ways, mimics the CNMI alien worker program, and so it, too, is an element of the phase-out of a nonresident contract worker program, even though it is a new and separate program.
THE FITIAL LAWSUIT
The CNMI administration, led by Governor Fitial, challenged the CNRA law in federal court. It claimed that the law would ruin the CNMI by depriving the CNMI of foreign labor needed for the economy. It also claimed that the CNMI administration strongly wanted to stabilize the labor market in the CNMI, and had authority over labor; and that the US authority was limited to immigration.
The federal court finally determined that there was no basis for the challenge and dismissed the CNMI's complaint as to the CNRA. CNMI v. U.S., #08-1572 (U.S. Dist. Ct. D.C., 2009). (Opinion available here.)
The only portion of the CNMI lawsuit that garnered success was the challenge to the late "adoption" of regulations for the US-administered transitional worker program. This had the effect of derailing the availability of new transitional workers being admitted. Until final regs are adopted, no new workers under a transitional CW permit can be hired.
However, there remain in the CNMI many alien workers who actually have jobs or who had authority to seek transfers to new employers under the CNMI regime. In the final days of CNMI control of immigration, the CNMI issued "umbrella permits" which were a last-ditch measure, ostensibly to stabilize the labor force and provide the maximum allowable time under the CNRA to alien workers here. These were handed out in a mad rush, while aliens lined up for hours, day and night. The "umbrella permits" provided the maximum allowable time for admission to the CNMI under CNRA law--through 11/27/2011.
But the permits also had "revocation" dates stamped on them.
It was clear even at the time that the CNMI government was issuing the "umbrella permits" that it had an ulterior motive. It wanted to extend its control over alien labor through the two year period.
THE MOST RECENT POWER STRUGGLE
And so the struggle for power over alien labor continues in the CNMI.
After 11/28/2009, the CNMI Department of Labor started scheduling appointments for , charging fees about, and "revoking" some of the newly issued umbrella permits.
The U.S. Ombudsman, Pam Brown, went on record saying that the USCIS would honor all umbrella permits as authority to stay until 11/27/2011 and would not honor any "revocation."
The CNMI DOL, through Jacinta Kaipat, lambasted Pam Brown, calling her reckless and accusing her of creating confusion, and insisting that she did not speak for the U.S. government. Kaipat told the CNMI Legislature that CNMI DOL can maintain control over umbrella permits. She had the backing of the CNMI AG, Ed Buckingham.
The Assistant Secretary for the Interior, Tony Babauta then joined the fray, supporting Pam Brown's position as that of the U.S.
On March 15, 2010, according to the CNMI newspapers, the USCIS released information on umbrella permits and other alien labor matters in a question and answer format. This official US government information fully corroborated the information provided by the Ombudsman--that the US will honor umbrella permits as permission to stay and to work and that it will not recognize CNMI revocations done after 11/27/2009.
And on March 16, 2010, the newspapers carried Governor Fitial's very different answers to the questions, re-asserting the CNMI's power to revoke umbrella permits (and significantly, charge fees in connection with their non-revocation). The CNMI Attorney General issued an opinion that the CNMI retained legal authority and could revoke alien labor permits.
You can read much more detail about the entire history of the struggle at Unheard No More. You can read the CNMI Department of Labor's press releases at their blog, CNMI Labor Forum.
THE BASIC AREA OF CONTENTION
It is clear that the U.S. and the CNMI government authorities do not agree on the meaning of the CNRA. They do not agree on the scope of authority to the US and the limitations of authority on the CNMI.
I am not sure, but it appears that this disagreement may be limited to the transition period issues. For example, it seems beyond debate that after the transition, the CNMI will have the same limitations on its immigration/labor powers as every state does. It will have the same powers as every state, too.
It is not clear whether the disagreement about control and authority will extend beyond the first two years of transition. At present, the debate centers around the umbrella permit, which at best ends 11/27/2011.
The transition presents unique questions because it has not occurred before, so there is no guidance from any state or federal authority on how to interpret the CNMI's role under the CNRA for now.
SOME LEGAL ANALYSIS
Nothing in the CNRA can be read as authority for the CNMI's continued enforcement of its former alien labor program.
The umbrella permits are immigration permits to be present in the CNMI on the effective date of the transition. They expressly state that they are effective until 11/27/2011. The USCIS is recognizing them for that period of time.
This recognition by the USCIS provides the stability of an alien labor pool that the CNMI claimed to want. Aliens holding umbrella permits have the CNRA protections-they can't be deported for violation of INA sec. 212 (a)(6)(A), 8 USC 1182 (a)(6)(A) until the completion of the period of their admission or 11/27/2011, whichever is first. They can work during that time period.
The US reads the CNRA as authority that the CNMI can't retroactively effect the period of admission. And that seems most consistent with the text and the purpose of the CNRA law.
The CNMI tries to bootstrap its way into a two-year extension of its labor policies and programs. The CNMI's struggle seems more about getting fees and making alien workers jump through hoops, keeping them hostage, than it does about providing a stable pool of labor.
THE CNRA AGAIN
At present, we have only the language of the CNRA to consider when it comes to the issue of foreign workers in the CNMI. None of the federal agencies tasked with its enforcement have issued final regulations regarding its implementation.
This is significant. If the USCIS were to issue regulations, the CNMI may recognize their pre-emptive authority. The AG's opinion at footnote 2, acknowledges the pre-emptive power of regulations, citing Fidelity Federal Sav. and Loan Ass'n v. de la Cuesta, 485 U.S. 141, 153 (1982). However the footnote also gives some clue that the CNMI would likely argue that any regs that differed significantly from its own interpretation of the CNRA would be challenged as an impermissible construction of the statute.
The central issue between the US and the CNMI seems to focus on the effect of the CNMI status for aliens who remain for the two year period. The CNMI reads the CNRA as impliedly giving it authority to continue to effectuate its alien labor laws as long as there are aliens in the CNMI who were admitted pursuant to those laws.
"The Commonwealth retains authority over certain immigration status issues regarding aliens lawfully in the Commonwealth as of the CNRA's effective date, November 28, 2009. This is because the CNRA provides a two-year transition period, during which Commonwealth immigration status must be respected and, by implication, the Commonwealth maintains jurisdiction to administer, and in a proper case, revoke that status."
The footnote to this claim says that the power extends to "Commonwealth immigration status of aliens legally present on November 28, 2009 ...including compliance with the express provisions set forth in the permits issued by the Commonwealth."
This interpretation takes several huge leaps in logic. It also blurs the distinction between immigration and labor.
The CNRA explicitly pre-empted admissibility and removal of aliens from the CNMI. Thus, there is no longer any "Commonwealth immigration status of aliens."
The Attorney General's opinion states that the CNRA expressly provides that the Commonwealth immigration status may continue during the transition period, but that statement is inaccurate. The CNRA provides protection from removal and authority to work, but it does not "continue" the CNMI alien status. No such status now exists. There can be no CNMI administration of such status.
The CNRA protects those who had such status on the transition effective date from removal for the period of time for which they were granted lawful admission by the CNMI prior to the effective date of the CNRA. If they were authorized to work on the transition effective date, they shall be considered authorized "by the Secretary of Homeland Security" to be employed until "the expiration of the alien's employment authorization under the immigration laws of the Commonwealth" or 11/27/2011, whichever is earlier. Everything is determined at the transition effective date. No where in the CNRA does it say that the CNMI can retroactively change the period of time for which aliens were granted admission or authorized to work.
The CNMI argues that aliens with umbrella permits might not have been able to stay for the full two years if they didn't comply with certain CNMI labor requirements; so the CNMI should continue to be allowed to enforce those requirements.
The CNRA does not say this. It does not suggest this. The clarity of the "transition effective date" as the date upon which rights and privileges are determined contradicts this interpretation. Furthermore, the CNRA expressly gives the US control over the transitional worker program, making it clear that it is the US that is to administer labor and immigration issues during the transition, not the CNMI. It would conflict with the CNRA's transitional worker program administered by the US to allow the CNMI to continue to administer its own alien worker program during the transition. Even more clearly, the CNRA expressly states that the Secretary of Homeland Security is deemed to have authorized employement for those present and authorized by the CNMI on the transition program effective date; how can the CNMI now revoke the Secretary of Homeland Security's authorization to work?
The CNMI Attorney General's Opinion does a good job of laying out the basics of pre-emption. Quoting from the opinion, in part...
" "Where a state statue conflicts with, or frustrates, federal law, the former must give way." U.S. Const. Art. VI, cl.2; Maryland v. Louisiana, 451 u.s. 726, 746 ...(1981). ... Evidence of pre-emptive purpose is sought in the text and structure of the statute at issue...
"A federal statute's express preemption clause indicates Congress' purpose....However, "[t]he fact that an express definition of the pre-emptive reach of a statue "implies-i.e. supports a reasonable inference-that Congress did not intend to pre-empt other matters does not mean that the express clause entirely forecloses any possibility of implied pre-emption."
...Implied preemption may occur via field preemption of conflict preemption.
Field prempetion may be found when states regulate a subject area that federal law also regulates...
Conflict preemption may be found when state statutes conflict with federal statutes.
State statutes regulating aliens may be constitutionally permissible. "Power to regulate immigration is unquestionably exclusively a federal power. But the Court has never held that every state enactment which in any way deals with aliens is a regulation of immigration and thus per se pre-empted by this constitutional power, whether latent or exercised."...
All of this is accurate and helpful.
It also helps clarify why the CNMI's interpretation of the CNRA is twisted and illogical.
The CNRA deals with immigration. The US federal court, in the challenge by the Fitial administration, clearly recognized that the alien labor portions of the CNRA are immigration matters. Employment authorization is a condition of admission and working without it may lead to removal; these are directly within the zone of the statute's pre-emption--admission and removal.
This law preempts the CNMI's attempt to regulate alien labor, both by field pre-emption and conflict pre-emption.
The CNMI wants to do something different than what the US is doing in the very field that the CNRA deals with--alien labor. The US transition program for alien labor clearly puts this power with the US government. The Secretary of Homeland Security is deemed to have authorized the employment of aliens as of the effective date of the transition period (11/28/2009). The CNMI can't reovke the Secretary of Homeland Security's authorization for employment. It can't pass laws now that effect status of any alien or add burdens not contemplated by Congress.
The real shame in all of this is the harm caused by the CNMI's unwillingness to be fair and rational in the transition to US immigration. Its refusal to turn over data, the verbal attacks on US officials, the waste of limited CNMI resources by litigating and continuing to press untenable positions is all very seriously harmful. And for alien workers and employers caught in the midst of this kerfuffle, the harm is not just lost wages and lost profits, but also stress and worry and uncertainty.
EDIT: For another take on this power struggle, see the Saipan Tribune column by Maya Kara and Bruce Mailman.