Monday, December 29, 2008

Some Scheduling Matters

Just fyi:

The Marianas Office will be closed for the holidays in the afternoon of December 31, 2008, and on Thursday, January 1, and Friday, January 2, 2009.

We are typically open to the public Monday through Fridays as follows:

M-R-8 AM to noon; 1 PM to 5 PM
F-1 PM to 5 PM. (Friday mornings we have staff meeting and are closed during that time; we are sometimes open for a portion of Friday morning, but it depends on how long our meetings last.)

DOMESTIC cases: We will be accepting applications in family cases Monday through Thursday, January 26-29, 2009. If you have a case that relates to divorce, child custody, child support, guardianship, adoption or other family matter and you want our help, this is the time to apply for assistance.

If you are served summons and complaint or have some other time-sensitive matter, you may, of course, apply for our help at any time.

Happy holidays to all.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Great Day for Debtors' Rights

Today is a great day for judgment debtors in the CNMI.

The CNMI Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of PFC vs. Muna, 2008 MP 21, holding that the Superior Court must honor due process rights in civil contempt proceedings.

Specifically, the Superior Court must do the following in all future civil contempt hearings:
1. Advise the alleged contemnor that he has a right to be represented by counsel.
2. Advise the alleged contemnor that the Court will appoint counsel for him if he is too poor to afford counsel on his own.
3. Continue the matter to allow the non-indigent contemnor the opportunity to get counsel.

4. If a person brought into court on alleged contempt says s/he is too poor to afford counsel and s/he wants court-appointed counsel, the Superior Court is to undertake a quick examination of the contemnor's situation to determine if s/he is presumptively eligible for court-appointed counsel. If s/he is, then the Court appoints counsel before proceeding to the contempt matter.

5. Alternatively, the Superior Court can say before the contempt proceeding begins that it will NOT consider loss of liberty as a possible sanction in the matter. Then there is no court-appointed counsel, but there is also no jail sentence that can be imposed and then left hanging over the head of the judgment debtor as a means to compel payments.

Stay tuned for more information on this matter.

Decision is now available on-line at the Law Revision website: PFC vs. Muna

Saturday, October 4, 2008


MLSC will be short one attorney for a while. Staff Attorney Ed Peterson resigned recently.

He will be missed.
Here are some photos from our farewell barbecue.

Maria P. Muna, Lolita Nazaire, Nerita Peterson

Maria & Frank Rogopes work the grill.

Juanette Sablan, Lolita and Maria.

Juanette, Omar Calimbas, Erik Brown, Polly Anne Sablan, Frank,
Ben Tured, Ed Peterson, Nerita, and Lolita.

Omar presents the first (cool-headed) award.

I (Jane) present the second (adventure) award.

Ed is overcome by it all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Commonwealth vs. United States, Case 1:08-cv-01572

In the news this week was a report that the CNMI Governor, on behalf of the CNMI, sued the United States of America to stop federalization of immigration here. The lawsuit was filed on Friday, September 12, 2008 and assigned to Judge Paul L. Friedman.

The lawsuit alleges that the new federalization law, P.L. 110-229, goes beyond implementing a federal system of immigration and instead imposes a federal labor scheme on the CNMI, in violation of several laws.

The first count alleges that P.L. 110-229 violates the right of the CNMI to local self-government of internal affairs, as guaranteed by the Covenant, section 102. The U.S. may not over-ride the CNMI's local self-government of internal affairs unless the CNMI consents. (Covenant, section 105). The complaint alleges that implementation of the new system interferes with the CNMI's regulation of internal labor and economic affairs, and will cause economic harm that violates the U.S.'s guarantee to assist the CNMI in becoming part of the American economic community and able to meet its financial responsibilities of self-government.

The second count alleges that P.L. 110-229 was enacted in violation of the U.S. Constitution because the CNMI had no vote in Congress. The complaint alleges that the CNMI had no ability to participate in the political process, and that this defective political process violates the constitutional limits placed on Congress to enact laws.

The complaint asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to enter a permanent injunction prohibiting implementation and enforcement of P.L. 110-229.

The Defendants include the U.S., Michael Chertoff (Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Elaine Chao (Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor), and the U.S. Department of Labor. Because the defendant are all U.S. government offices or agents, they have 60 days after the U.S. Attorney is served with the summons and complaint to file their answer.

It's always risky to predict what will happen in litigation. CNMI Senator Maria Pangelinan was reported as saying that a stipulated settlement / consent decree declaring parts of the law inapplicable in the CNMI could be entered into. However, the same article reports that a spokesman for the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource believes the law will be upheld.

On the merits of the claim of the first count: it's difficult to see how "local self-government of internal affairs" can be stretched to encompass employment of foreign nationals. The extension of U.S. immigration here was expressly envisioned by the Covenant--and is expressly allowed. U.S. immigration, where ever it applies, effects the availability of foreign workers for certain job categories. It seems that the U.S., by extending U.S. immigration here, is specifically trying to bring the CNMI closer into the U.S. American economic community.

On the merits of the claim of the second count: the Covenant implicitly acknowledged that U.S. citizens living in the CNMI would not have a vote in U.S. Congressional elections. The Covenant designed our participation in the political processes of the U.S.: a resident representative; and 902 talks between governments. The claim that the political procedure used by the U.S. Congress to enact P.L. 110-229 violates the U.S. Constitution is really a claim that our Covenant violates the U.S. Constitution. This seems a very risky tact to take, but also one not likely to succeed.

Right now, P.L. 110-229 is scheduled to go into effect in the CNMI on June 1, 2009. The most likely effect of the lawsuit, unfortunately, will be a delay in the CNMI's cooperation with the U.S. in formulating regulations that must be in place in order for the law to be implemented on time. Undoubtedly, Governor Fitial will use this excuse to seek a delay in the start of federalization. The alternative, which even the U.S. doesn't want, would be the implementation of federalization without CNMI government input.

Although the complaint alleges that the federalization of immigration will cause uncertainty for our foreign investors and our populace in the CNMI, this lawsuit will only add to that uncertainty.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

21. Examining the Law about the Proposed Marianas Trench Marine Monument

One of the current issues of interest in the CNMI relates to the possibility of a new national marine monument. Presently under consideration by the President of the United States is a proposal to designate the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the three CNMI islands of Uracas (a/k/a Farallon de Pajaros), Maug, and Asuncion as a national marine monument.

Here is some information about the law that relates to this issue.

The CNMI CONSTITUTION, Article XIV: The CNMI Constitution requires strong protection for the environment. It specifically provides that the three northernmost islands of Uracas (a/k/a Farallon de Pajaros), Maug, and Asuncion be protected and maintained as uninhabited islands, to preserve the natural environment there.

Section 2: Uninhabited Islands. ... The islands of Maug, Uracas, Asuncion, ... and other islands specified by law shall be maintained as uninhabited places and used only for the preservation and protection of natural resources, including but not limited to bird, wildlife and plant species.

The CNMI Constitutional protection, however, does not extend to the waters and submerged lands around these islands.

Fish at Maug.
Photo by OceanBen, NOAA.

CNMI vs. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: The CNMI claimed ownership of the submerged lands around all of the CNMI islands. It sought to quiet title to those submerged lands in a lawsuit it filed against the U.S. However, both the U.S. District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the CNMI's claim, and held that when the CNMI negotiated the Covenant, it failed to make any claim for the submerged lands; at that time, the doctrine of U.S. "paramountcy"--meaning U.S. control of submerged lands--was well established law. The Court held that the submerged lands adjacent to the CNMI belong to the U.S.

In essence this means that the U.S. controls all of the submerged lands in the Exclusive Economic Zone around the CNMI, from the high water mark on each island out to 200 miles.

The ANTIQUITIES ACT of 1906: This federal law allows the President of the U.S. to designate

historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments...

Any site under U.S. federal control that has historic, cultural, or scientific significance can be designated a "monument" and that designation provides protection from excavation, injury, and destruction. Removal of antiquities can only be done by permit, and must be collected in a reputable museum or educational institution.

The Antiquities Act has been used more than 100 times by Presidents to designate monuments. Although the Antiquities Act speaks of "land," it apparently applies to submerged lands and the waters above them: the most recent designation was the creation of the monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands-- the Papahanaumokuakea Monument.

Because the land must already be owned or controlled by the U.S. the Antiquities Act does not require approval or consent from inhabitants of the state or territory where the monument is located. However, it has been the practice that the President examines whether there is local support for the designation of a monument; this is what President Bush did before designation a monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

There have been no public hearings and there will be no vote on the proposal for a Marianas Trench national marine monument. The only way for the President to gauge public sentiment is through public comment, either in the newspapers and other media, or through letters and e-mails to the White House.

Corals at Maug.
Photo from Oregon State University.

In the CNMI, most elected officials have gone on record and notified the President of their opposition to designation of the proposed Marianas Trench national marine monument. However, a great many individuals and businesses have gone on record or notified the President of their support for the designation of the proposed Marianas Trench national marine monument.

If you want to be heard on the issue, you can sign a petition in favor of the monument (contact Angelo Villagomez). Or you can sign a petition against the monument. You can also write a letter to either or both CNMI Newspapers, the Marianas Variety and the Saipan Tribune. Or you can write directly to President George W. Bush at The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, D.C. 20500, or send an e-mail to (text format only).

TIMEFRAME: There is no law that limits or defines the time frame for comments or for designation of the Marianas Trench national marine monument. It appears, however, that this is a proposal of the Bush Administration staff, and there is no indication that the proposal would be taken up by either candidate for President (McCain or Obama) in the next administration.

Rules and Regulations: It appears that if a Monument is designated, then rules and regulations are adopted. These would likely require co-management of the national marine monument, between the CNMI and the U.S., as was done in the Hawaii monument. It appears that co-management agreements are negotiated between the governments, but not subject to any particular process.

We could likely expect to see rules and regulations published in the Federal Register (and then the Code of Federal Regulations). The regulations for the Papahanaumokuakea Monument suggest that there would not likely be a comment period, except for certain limited topics; EDIT--the recent information from University of Hawaii, William S. Richardson School of Law Professor Jon Van Dyke indicates that there is a short time period (75 days in the case of the Hawaiian monument) for public input after the President's designation.

The designation of monument status guarantees the most conservation protection available under law, and that protection is then further detailed in the regulations, worked out by the co-managers with public involvement.

Monday, July 21, 2008

20. MLSC's Budget Woes

If you're interested, you can read about our situation here in the Saipan Tribune.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Applying for a Family-Based Green Card in the CNMI: Fees, Costs, Time

Family-Based Green Cards in the CNMI
Generally, aliens can be present in the US with either non-immigrant (temporary) status or a green card (permanent resident status). Permanent residency is primarily obtained through a family member or employment. Many aliens in the CNMI have gotten their green card through a sponsoring immediate relative, like a U.S. citizen spouse. This is because the Covenant, despite broadly excluding the CNMI from federal immigration law, has always recognized the CNMI to be a part of the US when considering aliens who are immediate relatives of US citizens living here. With the enactment of Public Law 110-229 on May 8, 2008, the Covenant will be amended to recognize the CNMI as part of the US for all immigration purposes. As mentioned in our previous post, this will have a direct impact on a variety of aliens who do not have federal immigration status, including those with CNMI IR status but who do not have green cards.

This post covers some of the practical issues with applying for a family-based green card. For an overview of the process and eligibility requirements, go to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) webpage here.

Fees & Costs
USCIS fees associated with a green card application can be quite expensive. In July 2007, the USCIS revised its fee schedule, which resulted in many filing fees doubling and even tripling. USCIS does allow for some fee waivers based on an inability to pay. However, proving an inability to pay might run you the risk of being denied admissibility based on being considered a public charge, which means being dependent on public benefits like Medicaid or food stamps. Being a public charge is one ground for a green card denial.

Besides the USCIS fees, there are at least two substantial costs: the medical exam and the airfare to Guam for the green card interview. An I-693 medical report form needs to be completed by an authorized health care provider. The examination required for this report is different from the check-up for the CNMI work permit. There are at least two authorized health care providers for the I-693 medical exam in the CNMI: Pacific Medical Center and Marianas Medical Center. Both are located in Saipan. Contact the health provider directly to verify the current fee range.

Another cost may be for an attorney if you choose to have one assist you with the process.

The following table breaks down what might come out of your pocket for a green card:

Processing Time
It can take several months or up to a year to process a green card application. You can track general processing times for each USCIS center/office on the USCIS website here. The time it takes depends in large part on the backload of applications at any given USCIS center/office, and whether there are any special issues presented by an applicant’s situation. Before, the average range of time to process a green card was 6-8 months. USCIS is now saying to expect a much longer time frame. This is because of the surge in applications that were submitted last year to avoid the scheduled fee increases.

It usually has taken a month or so to receive the USCIS notice of receipt of the initial application package. If there are no initial problems with the application, USCIS next schedules a green card interview in Guam. This may happen around 2-3 months later. Again, this could take longer now due to an unusually large backload of applications. You and your sponsor will need to attend the interview together. USCIS does not cover the airfare to Guam. After the interview, USCIS may have additional requests for evidence. If an approval is granted, you will receive a notice and your permanent resident card by mail.

Top image entitled “Liberty for immigrants' rights” by philocrites . Middle image entitled “Got this in the mail today” by lacylouwho . Bottom image entitled “Permanent resident card” by nh7a . Top and middle images published under an Attribution NonCommercial Creative Commons license. Bottom image published under an Attribution NonCommercial Share Alike Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

18. Some questions about P.L. 110-229.

There are many unanswered questions about how P.L. 110-229 will affect various people in the CNMI.

Here are some that may apply to MLSC clients:

What will happen to alien spouses?
The CNMI IR card will provide legal status only until its renewal date. The U.S. citizen spouse will likely have to apply for U.S. green card /immediate relative status for the alien spouse.

The fees for these applications are stiff, including costs for health certifications, etc. The U.S. citizen spouse will need to promise to financially support the alien spouse for 10 years or until the alien becomes a U.S. citizen (which first occurs). If the U.S. citizen spouse does not have sufficient income to be a financial guarantor, another additional sponsor for financial support will be needed.

What will happen to an alien spouse getting divorced from her/his U.S. citizen spouse?

The CNMI immigration does not require U.S. citizen spouses to get U.S. green cards for their alien spouses. So alien spouses in the CNMI have not had any way to gain permanent residency when their U.S. citizen spouses did not get them green cards. Sometimes they haven't gotten green cards because the U.S. citizen spouse intentionally wanted to use the lack of permanent status as a means for control over the alien spouse. But sometimes, the married couple just couldn't afford the cost of the green card processing.

So now, in the CNMI, under current CNMI law, divorce means you lose your local "immediate relative" status.

This can be especially difficult for those who have been married for a long time and who have U.S. citizen children. A U.S. citizen spouse in the U.S. will almost always get a green card for his or her alien spouse because the alien spouse needs some legal status to reside in the U.S. In the CNMI, that "legal status" has been the less permanent, no-road-to-citizenship local immediate relative status for alien spouses.

So once the divorce is finalized, an alien spouse here will lose "local IR" status and be deportable. We are seeing spouses, after many years of marriage and children, in the process of divorce at this moment who appear to be unprotected by anything in P.L. 110-229.

What about widows and widowers here who were married to U.S. citizens?

At present, widows and widowers who were married to U.S. citizen spouses have been granted by the Commonwealth Superior Court recognition that they have a right to remain in the CNMI, that the death of the U.S. spouse does not extinguish their "immediate relative" status under CNMI law. The CNMI Supreme Court has never ruled on the issue.

So on June 1, 2009, when U.S. immigration takes over, these widows and widowers will probably be considered legal, but their CNMI legal status will be extinguished on the transition date, and they will have no corresponding legal status under U.S. law. There is no clear category that they'll fit into under the new U.S. immigration system.

If they had been living in the U.S. during their marriage, the U.S. citizen-spouse would likely have applied for a green card for the alien spouse, as a means of providing legal residence in the U.S. And upon the U.S. citizen-spouse's death, the alien might have been entitled to continued permanent residence and eventual citizenship. Widows and widowers here were locked out of that protection by the CNMI IR status that did not provide for permanency. The Superior court decision tried to provide for what was lacking in the CNMI IR set-up, but there is nothing in the new federal law to address the issue.

What will happen to those with CNMI Permanent Residency?

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, the CNMI had a "permanent residency" law that allowed aliens to become permanent residents of the CNMI. Something like 200+ permits were issued under this law. When the law was repealed, these "permanent residents" retained their status.

On June 1, 2009, when U.S. immigration takes over, these "CNMI permanent residents" will be legal. It is unclear whether their status is extinguished by the U.S. law, or whether they are entitled to some more due process. At the very most, their situation will be problematic and they will have uncertain protection under U.S. law, and no clear category that they'll fit into under the new immigration system.

What protection will U.S. citizen minor children have for their alien parents?
Right now these U.S. citizen children are in jeopardy. They have a right to be here in the CNMI. But their parents don't, unless the parents have separate status. As the economy continues to plummet downward, these parents are not only losing the economic security of having a job, but with job loss these parents face deportation as no longer having a legal status. It's the kids who will suffer. They will either be left here with others to care for them--breaking up the family, or they'll move with their parents back to the parents' home country--suffering disruption and other problems.

Under U.S. law, which will apply as of June 1, 2009, they may be able, in some special hardship cases, to have the U.S. withhold deportation of their parents. This may be most helpful to children who are disabled and handicapped. [See, INA sec. 240 (A)(b)(1)(D)] In the meantime, there seems little protection under current CNMI law.

Note, once children reach the age of 21, they can petition their alien parents in for immediate relative/green card status, even now.

What protection will be given to alien workers who have lived and worked a long time in the CNMI?
We have a lot of aliens who have lived in the CNMI for five, ten, twenty, and more years. For those who have decades of employment behind them, but now find themselves without jobs in our dwindling economy, they're just missing the boat by a fraction of an inch. It seems unfair. If anyone should get status, it should be those who have worked and contributed to the CNMI for the longest time period, even if they've lost their most recent job in the economy.

Nothing in P.L. 110-229 addresses this concern immediately. It does provide for study of the possibility of providing permanent legal status to some.

What will happen to alien spouses of citizens from the Freely Associate States-FSM, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands?
Years ago, Judge Munson ruled in a case filed by V.K. Sawhney that the CNMI couldn't just start re-classifying these alien spouses as "aliens" when they are married to people who were former TT citizens with a full right to live here (especially for those who had legal status as spouses when the Covenant went into effect). So the CNMI continued to give them IR status.

Now they will face the same challenge as we transition from CNMI immigration to U.S. immigration, only against U.S. law.. They have marriages, children, lives in the CNMI. But they're married to FAS citizens who have the right to live here by virtue of the Compact of Free Association, but no known legal means for providing status to alien spouses.

Other gaps from the transition? Solutions?
From this short list of potential problems, it appears that we need additional U.S. laws to protect these vulnerable people from falling between the cracks of the two systems-the out-going CNMI immigration system, and the in-coming U.S. immigration system. We also need some sympathetic local action that does not push people out to create slots for others, but tries to help as many aliens currently in the CNMI as possible.

Undoubtedly there are other aliens with tricky situations. If you have a specific problem, feel free to post about it in the comments section. It may be useful to those who are working on these issues.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

S. 2739. ISLA, n/k/a P.L. 110-229

ISLA—Immigration, Security, and Labor Act (originally H.R. 3079, included as Title VII in S. 2739) Passed the Senate on 4/10/2008; Passed the House on 4/29/2008; Signed by President Bush on 5/8/2008.

some key phrases in the intent section:
“effective border control”
“extending” U.S. immigration laws to the CNMI
“the orderly phasing-out of the nonresident contract worker program”
“the orderly phasing-in of Federal responsibilities...”
“providing a mechanism for continuous use of alien workers, to the extent those workers continue to be necessary to supplement the Commonwealth’s resident workforce”
“to protect those workers from the potential for abuse and exploitation.”

effective date: 1st day of the 1st full month commencing one year after enacted.
Thus, if this bill is signed promptly by President Bush (in May 2008), the effective date would be JUNE 1, 2009.

what happens? This law amends P.L. 94-241 (the Covenant), which had previously exempted the CNMI from the scope of U.S. immigration law, and allowed the CNMI to control its own immigration..

U.S. immigration laws, as defined in 8 U.S.C. § 1101 (a)(17)[1] go into effect in the CNMI on the start date of the transition period and subject to some exceptions/limitations:
(1) there will be a transition period where U.S. immigration laws apply, allowing entry of aliens under U.S. immigration categories, and operating in tandem with a program operated by U.S. immigration authorities that permits alien workers in the CNMI similar to the current CNMI immigration program under a special CNMI-only/special H Visa program.
(2) only the CNMI asylum/non-refoulement program will be in operation during the transition period; U.S. asylum / non-refoulement is not in operation in the CNMI during the transition period.

On the transition program effective date, all CNMI laws, provisions, and programs relating to the admission of aliens and their removal are superseded and replaced by U.S. law.

when is the transition period? start date[2] likely 6/1/2009 to end date 12/31/2013[3].

who’s in charge of immigration? The Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Interior.

what happens now--in the pre-transition period? The federal agencies promulgate regulations to deal with the transition. Regarding the tourist visa-waiver program, the regulations must be promulgated within 180 days after enactment of ISLA.

The CNMI may not increase the number of aliens present in the CNMI after the date ISLA is enacted

delays? Possible. If there will be a delay, notice of delay must be published 30 days in advance of start date (i.e. 5/1/2009). The Secretary of Homeland Security (after consulting with the Secretary of State, Attorney General, Secretary of Labor, Secretary of Interior AND the CNMI Governor) may, in his sole discretion, delay the effective date of the transition program for a period up to 180 days. SO START COULD BE AS LATE AS 1/1/2010.

End of transition period can also be delayed as to the section d--CNMI-only/special H Visa program. See reports section, infra.

what happens to the aliens here under CNMI immigration laws? For any alien lawfully present on the start date of the transition period, that alien may not be deported until his CNMI entry permit expires or 2 years elapse, whichever FIRST occurs.

what about entry by aliens during the transition period?
1) Anyone eligible under any U.S. immigration law (including all of the H Visa categories, investor categories, etc.), may enter the CNMI as they would the U.S.

2) Workers under 8 U.S.C. § 1101 (1)(15)(H), without restriction of numerical quota limit. (H Visa)

3) Workers under special provision ISLA sec. 6d, in a CNMI-only/special H Visa[4] system where Secretary of Homeland Security allocates and determines numbers, terms, conditions to employers, and reduces yearly number allowed, eventually down to zero by 12/31/2013.[5] (sec. d CNMI only/special H Visa). Spouses and minor children admissible, too, under this special program.

1) Long-term investors on the start date under the current CNMI law may obtain “CNMI-only nonimmigrant investor” status under 8 U.S.C. §101(a)(15), provided they maintain the investment that formed the basis of their status.

tourists? The Secretary of Homeland Security may institute a visa waiver program for 45 day visits for business or pleasure, after consultation with Secretary of Interior, Secretary of State, Guam Governor and CNMI Governor. Tourists must sign certain waiver of rights.

asylum seekers? The CNMI asylum/non-refoulement program continues in effect. Aliens may not seek asylum under U.S. law until 1/1/2014.

alien spouses of FSM/Palau/RepMar citizens? There is no special provision for these persons. They will likely be considered as aliens with legal status until their permits expire or two years elapse, under the general provision about aliens in the CNMI.

what about transfers? There is a special provision that aliens who are admitted to the CNMI under section d (CNMI-only/special H Visas) may transfer between employers during the period of their lawful stay, without permission of the current or prior employer, but within authorized categories for CNMI-special H Visas.

what are the new fees for entry? whatever is usually charged for immigration matters, PLUS
1. $150 per non-immigrant worker; paid by §d (CNMI only/CNMI special H Visa program) employer during transition period. This money is remitted to the CNMI for vocational training and education.

what about permanent residency? For those aliens who have green cards (U.S. permanent residency) already, the CNMI is specifically deemed to be part of the U.S. and presence in the CNMI is “considered to be presence in the United States.”

For those aliens who have CNMI permanent residency (under laws that were eventually repealed in the 1980's), there is no clear answer in this new law about ability to adjust status or what status will be recognized.

For those who do not have permanent residency yet, but wish to apply, no grant of status is provided for in this law; however see “reports.”

what about removal/deportation? The Secretary of Homeland Security is the authority for issuing exclusion, deportation, and removal orders, starting on the transition date. He applies whatever U.S. or CNMI law is appropriate to the case.

what happens to employees of CNMI immigration? There is no specific provision for them. The CNMI immigration department will cease to exist when the transition period starts. TSA and other homeland security departments will take-over immigration operations, and will need qualified personnel.

future reports:

1) Secretary of Homeland Security, (consultation with Secretary of Interior and other departments) to Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and House Committee on Natural Resources, House Committee on Homeland Security, and House Committee on Judiciary by 12/1/2008. Report is about current and planned levels of TSA, Customs & Border Protection, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, USCIS, and Coast Guard personnel and resources necessary for fulfilling mission requirements in Guam and CNMI comparable to level provided at other similar ports of entry. Consider military build-up and anticipated growth in tourism.

2) Permissive/not required: annual report from CNMI Governor to President on implementation, with recommendations.

3) Secretary of Interior, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security and the CNMI Governor, to Congress, by 5/2010, on the number of aliens residing in the CNMI, their legal status, the number of years each has been in the CNMI, prediction of need by CNMI economy for future alien workforce, and recommendation about long-term status of workers.

4) GAO to Congress by 6/2010, assessing performance of federal agencies and CNMI Government in meeting congressional intent, short-term & long-term impacts of implementation on economy; and economic benefit of investors grandfathered in; and assessment of number of illegal aliens in CNMI.

5) President to Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Committee on the Judiciary of the Senate, and House Committee on Natural Resources, and House Committee on Judiciary by 3/1/2011, and every 3/1/ thereafter. Evaluating overall effect of transition program.

6) Secretary of Homeland Security to Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Committee on the Judiciary of the Senate, and House Committee on Natural Resources, and House Committee on Judiciary, by end of 3 years after start date (6/2012), on projected number of asylum claims

7) Secretary of Labor, after consultation with Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of Interior and Governor of CNMI, on current and anticipated labor needs in the CNMI, and shall publish notice in Federal Register, 180 days before end of transition period (6/30/2013), if determines need for CNMI-only/special H Visa workers warrants extension of transition period. Delay of end of transition for this special workers-entry program only—5 years at a time.

8) Permissive, not required. Secretary of Homeland Security (after consultation with Secretary of State and Secretary of Interior) to Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senate Committee on Judiciary, House Committee on Natural Resources, and House Committee on Judiciary, about feasibility of creating additional Guam or CNMI-only visa categories.(non-immigrant statuses for investors, students, and retirees, but not for employment) [any time].

[1] 8 USC §1101 (a)(17) The term "immigration laws" includes this Act and all laws, conventions, and treaties of the United States relating to the immigration, exclusion, deportation, expulsion, or removal of aliens.
[2] But see “delays” infra.
[3] But see “delays” and “reports” infra.
[4] Note that this special type of entry permit is not given a name in the ISLA; I call it a CNMI-only/special H Visa because of its characteristics. It will be up to regulations to give it an actual name.
[5] But see “delays” and “reports”.

Monday, April 14, 2008

TWA's and Tax Season

Many foreign workers in the CNMI are concerned about preserving some legal status during the transition from CNMI-controlled immigration to the federalized, U.S. immigration system. No one is exactly sure how long the implementation of the U.S. immigration will take, but the plan does have delays built into it, and it takes time to write and adopt regulations.

In the meantime, more and more foreign workers are facing loss of status.

2007 Unity March, photo by W. L. Doromal

The following information is my understanding based on a conversation with private attorney Alexis Fallon. As noted in our sidebar, nothing in this column is intended to be legal advice. With that said, this might be worth checking out for those foreign workers who have lost or face losing their legal status before the full benefits of U.S. immigration are realized.

1. TWA's, that is temporary work authorizations, are available to those who have legitimate pending legal cases. A manufactured claim isn't going to work.
But you may already be part of one of two on-going class actions, and thus eligible for a TWA, even if you have already lost employment or other basis for legal status. Both legal cases relate to taxes, the bane of most workers. This time, the tax system, and its problems, may help and give you foreign workers a right to a TWA.

2. Basically, in the CNMI we have chapter 2 tax (which is a local tax) and chapter 7 tax (which is our federal tax). We get rebates on chapter 2.
Did you earn more than $5,800 in any year from about 2002 on? If the answer is yes, did you file a tax return? If yes, you should have gotten some rebate, even a small one. Did the CNMI pay it to you on time. If the answer to this last question is no (either you didn't get it, or you didn't get it on time), you are part of one of the class action cases pending in court right now. You may be eligible for a TWA.
3. In the CNMI, permanent residents and U.S. citizens pay FICA, which is tax for Social Security and Medicare. Foreign workers generally are exempt from FICA.

Did you have FICA (sometimes noted as social security or medicare) deducted from your check? If you did, you are part of a different class action case pending in court right now. You may be eligible for a TWA.

How do you claim the benefit of being part of these class actions? One way (not necessarily the only way) is to contact the attorney, Alexis Fallon, who is handling them. Even if you are part of the class, she charges $150 to help get the TWA.

The benefit of having a legal status as the CNMI transitions from local control to federal immigration is that you have a better chance of securing some long-term U.S. benefit (like residency). Right now, there are no guarantees and no permanent residency built into the law. But there is a requirement for a study during the transition. And hope.

As always, if you have questions about anything you read on this blog, or have legal issues of your own, consult an attorney.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

On the importance of taking time to reflect

MLSC Marianas Office had its annual "burn out" day at Managaha on Friday 4/4/2008. This is a time when we, as an office, have a picnic for an entire work day. It isn't all fun and games; we actually work.
We start with our general weekly staff meeting.
We review every new application for assistance (intake) and gauge whether the applicant is qualified for our services (meets income and asset eligibility criteria) and determine whether the case fits within our priorities. Our first priority is to the clients on cases we have already accepted. Sometimes this means that we cannot take a new case on, no matter how eligible and meritorious the case. And for those cases we do accept, we assign to one of the case handlers in the office.
Then we get to the real reason for our retreat. We take turns expressing our opinons about what we've done right during the past year, what problems we've encountered, what we want to do or do better on during the coming year, and how we're going to tackle these goals.
And then we barbecue, eat, swim, walk around the island, chat, relax.
There's something very rejuvenating about these retreats. The hectic day-in, day-out pace of work gets put into perspective. We can enjoy each other's company without the pressure of jobs that need urgent attention. We can see what our work means and how we can help our community by doing it.

A few photos:

The blue lagoon (from the boat).

Managaha-still beautiful.

Our newest staff: secretary Juanette Sablan

Frank Rogopes (1984 to present)

Omar Calimbas (2006-present)

Lolita Nazaire (2006-present)

Ed Peterson with wife Nenita (2007-present)

The whole gang-almost. (I've cropped myself out of the photo for aesthetic reasons! Maria P. Muna is off-island so missed the Managaha trip.)

In the shade of the pala-pala.

On the tour boat back to Saipan.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Help for Alien Victims of Crime

There has been a lot of discussion in the newspapers lately about victims of trafficking. Father Bilotti has written informative columns in the North Star to help describe these victims, distinguish them from victims of domestic violence, and promote their rights and entitlements to help through legal means.

But there are other victims of crime in the CNMI who may also have rights that they don't know about. In particular, when aliens are victims of certain serious crimes, they may have the right to get a "U Visa," which authorizes them to live in the U.S., and get an employment authorization to work there. U Visa holders may stay in the CNMI with the U Visa, or they may choose to relocate to Guam, Hawaii or the U.S. mainland. They may renew their U Visas on an annual basis, and eventually may qualify for U.S. citizenship.

In order to get a U Visa, a victim must have suffered from a serious crime on this list:

domestic violence,
sexual assault,
abusive sexual contact,
sexual exploitation,
female genital mutilitation,
being held hostage, peonage,
involuntary servitude,
slave trade,
unlawful criminal restraint,
false imprisonment,
felonious assault,
witness tampering,
obstruction of justice,
or attempt, conspiracy or solicitation to commit any of the above.

The victim must have suffered substantial physical, emotional or psychological abuse as a result of the crime.

The victim must possess information about the crime and be willing to help or have helped the government in its criminal investigation or prosecution.

The government (CNMI or U.S.) must certify that the victim was or is helpful.

And the crime must have violated some U.S. law, occuring in the U.S. (including the CNMI).

MLSC has already helped some aliens apply for U Visas. The process can take time.

Information about petitions for U Nonimmigrant status can be found on-line here.

If you've been a victim of a serious crime in the CNMI, or know someone who has, and you are not a U.S. citizen, you may want to consider whether you qualify for a U Visa. This is an important remedy that offers significant potential benefits to any non-U.S. citizen victim. Because of the complexity of the forms and the importance of the various procedures, I would recommend any victim who thinks they may qualify for a U Visa to seek legal help.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Child Support in the CNMI

Parents who don’t receive child support struggle to meet their children’s basic needs. Parents may not always be able to pay the full amount of their child support. The economic downturn in the CNMI in the past few years has magnified these issues. Knowing your legal rights and obligations in these situations helps ensure that children receive the support to which they are entitled.

When does a parent legally owe child support?

When does a court get involved with child support?

Do I have to pay child support even if none has been ordered by a court?

How long must parents support their children?

Is there a formula I can use to calculate my child support payments?

The parent who owes child support is refusing to pay. What can I do?

Does the CNMI government help with enforcing child support orders?

I lost my job and can’t keep up with my payments. Can I ask the court to cancel the support order?

When does a parent legally owe child support?

Parents are always legally obligated to provide for their children, even if the parents are unmarried. When parents separate, the parent who is not living with the child will legally owe a regular payment to support the child. That parent also must make sure that the child has health insurance.     back to top

When does a court get involved with child support?

Child support will always be determined by a court in a divorce action involving minor children. For unmarried parents, one of the parents will need to start a court action on custody and support.     back to top

Do I have to pay child support even if none has been ordered by a court?

Yes. The legal duty to pay support does not depend on a court order. If parents have separated a long time before there is a divorce decree or custody court order, a court may decide how much child support was owed in the past.     back to top

How long must parents support their children?

Parents must provide support until the child is no longer a minor, which means when the child reaches 18 years of age. Some exceptions include the following:

• If the child is unmarried, a full-time high school student, and is still living with and dependent on one of the parents. In that case, support may finish when the child reaches 21 years of age.

• When a birth parent’s rights and responsibilities are terminated by a court (such as when a child is adopted).

• If a court has declared the child to be emancipated, child support may end before the child turns 18. Emancipation can occur when a minor is responsible enough to be free from parental control and is already self-supporting.
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Is there a formula I can use to calculate my child support payments?

No. All the U.S. states have numerical guidelines for calculating child support. Efforts to establish similar guidelines began here in the early 1990s under former Presiding Judge Edward Manibusan. Throughout the years, under succeeding judges, committees were set up, research was conducted, and at least two sets of regulations were drafted. However, no numerical guidelines have yet to be finalized and made enforceable in the CNMI. Thus, the courts are left with figuring out child support amounts based on various circumstances. Some of these factors include the following:

• The needs of the child — including health insurance, educational needs, day care and special needs;

• The needs of the custodial parent; and

• The paying parent’s ability to pay.
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The parent who owes child support is refusing to pay. What can I do?

A parent who is working but not paying child support can have his or her paychecks garnished. A garnishment is where an employer is legally required to withhold some of the money from a person’s paycheck. The employer would then send the withheld funds to the parent who should be receiving the child support. You will need to request a garnishment order from the court. There are several rules regarding garnishment for child support, so you should have an attorney assist you.

Another way to enforce a child support order is by requesting that the court hold the parent who is refusing to pay in contempt of court. To be in contempt of court generally means that a person is willfully disobeying a court order. If the court finds the parent in contempt, the court may impose a jail term to force the parent to comply with the order. A court uses this power as a last resort. Practically speaking, the court would rather keep the parent out of jail where there is a chance of earning the money to continue the support payments.
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Does the CNMI government help with enforcing child support orders?

Public Law 14-34 was enacted in October 2004 to establish a comprehensive system for the enforcement of child support. The act creates a government agency to administer its provisions. However, as of now, there is no operational agency, and no regulations have been issued. Thus, the parent is primarily responsible for making sure the other parent complies with the child support obligation by taking matters to court.

There is one instance where the CNMI government assists in making sure a parent pays child support. If one of the parents lives anywhere else in the US (or its territories), the Marshall Islands, Palau, or the Federated States of Micronesia, the CNMI Office of the Attorney General can get involved. The CNMI, along with the rest of the US, enacted its own version of the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act, which provides a procedure for the enforcement of child support obligations between persons residing in separate states. Under that law, the Attorney General has various duties to assist in ensuring that off-island parents who owe child support are located and make their payments. The Attorney General can also get involved to enforce support obligations when the parent who owes is here and the other parent is off-island.
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I lost my job and can’t keep up with my payments. Can I ask the court to cancel the support order?

You will still have a child support obligation, even if you have no income. You and the other parent may agree to modify the child support terms, but this still needs to be approved by a judge to be legally enforceable.

If you and the other parent cannot agree on the change in support, you will need to request the court to hold a hearing to make the decision for the both of you. As a general rule, the court will not order a decrease or increase in child support payments unless there has been a significant change in circumstances. Some examples of a significant change include job loss or a large salary increase.
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All images derived from “Kids on the Beach” by moriza , “Latte Stones of Guam" by Drew Vigal , “Dave & the kids playing Carabu Cart” by leevin3 ” and “Saipan Sunset” by Lefty007 and are published under an Attribution NonCommercial Creative Commons license .

Thursday, February 28, 2008

12. How to Read the News about Lawyers and Judges

The newspapers have been replete with stories, reports and accusations back and forth about judges, attorneys and clients. The “Malite estate” is practically a household term. It gets confusing. What do you believe? How do you figure out the “truth”?

It helps to keep some basic information at hand.

About judges: We have an “adversarial” system for our justice system. This means that litigants oppose each other and have the burden of proving their allegations. Judges do not act as witnesses or investigators, only as neutral arbitrators of information presented to them. No litigant gets a “perfect trial.” In fact, such a thing does not exist. Somewhere along the line, one of the many people involved in the judicial process (judge, attorney, litigant, witness, juror, or even court clerk) will make a mistake, as all humans do. What we strive for is not a perfect trial, but a fair one, before a judge or justice who, in the case at hand (regardless of other cases), has not made up his or her mind before the evidence or appeal is presented.

About attorneys: The first and highest duty an attorney owes is to the constitution and laws of the U.S. and CNMI. Whenever an attorney signs a document that is filed in court, the attorney is certifying that he or she believes it is true and legally supported, after a reasonable inquiry. If the allegations turn out to be false or the claim or appeal not legally supportable, and the attorney was not diligent before filing the pleading, the court can punish the attorney. This first duty also means that a lawyer must sometimes tell a client that what the client wants is unattainable, illegal or unsupportable. Clients do not like to hear this, but honorable attorneys will do their duty anyway.

The second duty of an attorney is to his or her client. Because our system is adversarial, the duty to the client necessarily pits the attorney against the other side. This does not mean the attorney must be rude or hostile to the opposing side. For the attorney, the client’s interests are paramount; the client’s interests—not the interests of the family, not the interests of the community, not the interests of some moral or religious point of view, and not any other interest. It also means that what a lawyer does is done in the name of the client, and it is in reality the client who is acting through the attorney. I’ve seen families maintain good social contacts despite litigation between themselves and they sometimes do this by blaming the lawyers. But in reality, the lawyer does not do anything without his or her client’s authorization.

The least of an attorney’s duties is to the opposing party, the media and the public. Basically an attorney must be fair. This essentially means “due process,” which is giving notice of claims and recognizing the opponent’s right to be heard.

About probate cases: Probate cases involve disposing of all of the assets and debts a person who died had, as of the time of his or her death. These assets and debts are called the “estate.” Anyone can file to probate an estate. One unusual feature of our rules is that even a creditor who claims the estate owes him money can file the case and ask to be appointed as the administrator.

The court appoints an executor, if there was a will, or an administrator, if not, to handle the probate procedure and move the case through court. This executor or administrator usually hires an attorney. And in these probate cases, the executor or administrator, as well as his or her attorney, owes a special “fiduciary” duty to the heirs of the estate and must look after their interests. Obviously, if the administrator is a creditor as allowed by our rules, there appears to be a conflict of interest between the creditor’s own interest and the duty to look after the heirs’ interest. For this reason, the court usually works hard to find an heir or other family member to step into the role of administrator rather than have a creditor do this, but the probate rules do allow a creditor to act as an administrator.

One aspect of the special duty of an executor or administrator concerns handling the estate’s assets. Executors, administrators and their attorneys need a court order to dispose of any of the estate’s assets. Court orders typically first require notice and an opportunity to be heard by all. The alleged violation of the rules mandating orders from the probate court before disposing of estate assets has been at the heart of many of the problems with probate matters.

Because of past problems, distrust, or even for information, one or more of the heirs or other family members may hire their own attorneys. Such an attorney owes a general lawyer’s duty (not an administrator’s duty) as outlined above—to the law, to the client, and minimally to the world. Heirs generally have a right to be heard.

About the legal profession: When any litigant has problems with an attorney there may be remedies available. The litigant may raise the problem to the judge in the court case where the problem arises and then on appeal. Another place to lodge complaints about attorneys is with the CNMI Bar Association, which has a disciplinary committee that investigates such complaints and makes recommendations for prosecution if warranted. If a litigant has a complaint about a judge, the litigant can ask to have the judge removed from the case in the pending court proceedings, or file a complaint against the judge for violation of the judicial canons of conduct.

About media reports: When complaints against lawyers and judges are taken directly to the media, the justice system becomes distorted. Some media reports are made based on one person’s opinion, usually a person involved in the proceedings and not a neutral decision-maker of investigative journalist. The statements to the media are sometimes libelous, declaring as fact what has not been proven, and depriving the “accused” lawyer or judge of having due process—a chance to have notice of the charges and an opportunity to defend against them.

Statements made directly to the media, through interviews and letters, are different than statements made in pleadings filed in court, and then reported by journalists. The court pleadings are made under the attorney’s certification of diligent investigation and truthfulness, with the threat of sanction if carelessly wrong. And a journalist tries to report accurately what can be verified. In contrast, the lure of quick access to newsprint and television, with their wide audiences, can encourage the individual who is interviewed or who writes a letter to make rash and vindictive statements without any facing test for reliability or truthfulness.

Judges and lawyers, the same as all people in our justice system, are innocent until proven guilty. Allegations and statements about fact made by individuals directly to the media are not proved. All we really know is that so-and-so makes the allegation.

So when analyzing a news report about a judge or attorney (or anyone, for that matter), start by asking these simple questions:

1. Has there already been a finding by a court? If yes and the finding supports the statement, that would make the statement more believable. However, it may be important to read the court’s opinion yourself. Sometimes people twist what the court has actually said to serve their own ends. If the court decision is against what the person is saying, there’s less reason to believe the person’s statement. If there’s been no court decision, you may want to withhold your judgment on the truth of the statement or allegation, recognizing that the statement is just a bunch of words without proof.

2. Does the person making the report have a stake in the outcome? If yes, recognize that they are not neutral and unbiased, and remember that bias and prejudice can make reports unreliable. Ask yourself whether the person making the statements may be using the media to push their hype when they cannot win legally. Or are they merely responding to attacks unjustly made against them in the media, when they haven’t yet had an opportunity to present their case?

3. Do you personally know the speaker, the person making the statements or allegations? If yes, you have a better insight into credibility. If not, you may have little to no ability to assess the truthfulness of the statements made. Be smart about what you do know and what you don’t.

We need less character assassination in the newspapers, whether the topic is political or legal. Principles, not personalities, should be the focus of discussion and rational debate. So when you read letters to the editor or stories in the media where someone is claiming that another has acted unethically or based on prejudice, be cautious. Don’t believe everything you read. Use what you know. Ask questions. And withhold judgment until you’re convinced, not by cheap shots and lots of talk, but by real evidence, tested through cross-examination in a court of law, and unbiased review.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Child Custody in the CNMI

This post covers some basic legal issues on child custody in the CNMI.

When parents separate, the most difficult concerns are for the child. Many times, the parents will decide how to split their responsibilities and work out the child’s living arrangements. When parents are unable to reach a decision on how they will share in being a part of their child’s life, child custody can be determined by a court.

When does the court get involved in custody?

How does a court decide who gets custody?

What happens to the parent who doesn’t get custody?

What if I’m having problems with visitation because of the other parent or the other parent’s family?

Is there a child visitation center in the CNMI?

What if I believe the court’s decision on custody should be changed?

What if the parents agree about custody?

When does the court get involved in custody?

Generally, the child must still be a minor (less than 18 years old). In a divorce, the court will determine custody and specify it in the divorce decree. For unmarried parents, one of the parents will need to start a court action.     back to top

How does a court decide who gets custody?

Like most court actions, both parties present evidence – testimony or documents – to the court.

In deciding who gets custody, the main focus of the court is the best interests of the child. This is not necessarily the same thing as what a parent wants. The child’s best interests are based on the child’s needs and well-being.

Although the CNMI statutes do not provide details on how a court figures out what is in the child’s best interest, several factors may include the following:

● The stability and safety of the home.

● The love and affection between the child and each parent.

● The ability and desire of each parent to provide for the food, clothing, shelter, medical and other needs of the children. The financial ability to provide for the child is not significant in figuring out custody, because the court can award child support.

● The willingness of each parent to encourage a close and continuing relationship with the other parent (unless that parent is abusive or provides a very unhealthy environment).
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What happens to the parent who doesn’t get custody?

The court will almost always allow the other parent to have the right to child visitation. This is based on the understanding that children will normally do better when there is a meaningful relationship with both parents. The parents or the court will determine what the visitation schedule should be.     back to top

What if I’m having problems with visitation because of the other parent or the other parent’s family?

If a parent is concerned about the child’s safety during visitation with the other parent (for example, if there is a history of domestic violence, alcohol or drug abuse, etc.), then the concerned parent should explain to the court that visitation should be supervised, or that there should be some other form of restriction on visitation. If family members are speaking badly about a parent or making it difficult to transfer the children to the other parent, this should also be explained to the court.     back to top

Is there a child visitation center in the CNMI?

In Saipan, a child visitation center is planned to open this year (2008). The center will serve as a safe, neutral location where the exchange of children or actual visits can take place. A court may order visitation to be scheduled at the center, which will be managed by Connecting Families, a non-profit organization. The purpose of the center is to promote a healthy atmosphere between parents and their children during stressful times involving divorce, separation, domestic violence or substance abuse.     back to top

What if I believe the court’s decision on custody should be changed?

To change the terms of custody, there needs to have been a substantial change of circumstances since the original divorce decree or custody order. There can be many types of changes. However, to modify custody, the change must be substantial. Also, the custody modification still needs to be in the best interests of the child. You will need to file a motion for modification with the court. In your motion, you will need to explain the substantial change in circumstances. You will also need to explain how the custody modification will be in the best interests of the child.     back to top

What if the parents agree about custody?

If the parents agree on custody and visitation, they can give the court a copy of the written agreement and ask that the agreement be turned into a court order. This can be done by including the agreement in the divorce decree or custody order. However, the court may reject the agreement if it believes that it is not in the child’s best interests.     back to top

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Food Stamps in the CNMI (part 2 of 2)

The previous post provided a brief history and current status of food stamps in the CNMI.

This post will cover your basic food stamp rights.

Basic Food Stamp Rights

If you are eligible for food stamps, you are entitled to receive them. This means you have several rights that you may exercise when dealing with the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), the CNMI agency that implements the food stamps program. Some of these rights are explained below (click one of the questions):

1. What if the NAP tells me that I cannot apply for food stamps?

2. Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to get food stamps?

3. What are the financial eligibility rules?

4. The Grievance Procedure. What if I’m denied food stamps, or my food stamps are cut or stopped?

5. What if I forget to tell the NAP about changes to my household, income or property?

6. What if an NAP caseworker treats me unfairly?

1. What if the NAP tells me that I cannot apply for food stamps?

You have the right to submit an application for food stamps. NAP cannot stop you from applying. See #6 below (What if an NAP caseworker treats me unfairly?).     back to top

2. Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to get food stamps?

Yes, but certain aliens may also qualify. Aliens who can qualify generally fall under U.S. immigration categories, such as those admitted for permanent residence (i.e., green card holders), refugees, and those granted asylum. If you cannot get food stamps, your family household members who are U.S. citizens or qualifying aliens may still be eligible to get them.     back to top

3. What are the financial eligibility rules?

Food stamps are a government benefit based on need. There are limits to an eligible household’s income and assets.

a. Income.

i. Can I get food stamps if I'm working?

Yes, you may be eligible to receive food stamp benefits if you earn below the income eligibility limit. Income limits vary depending on the number of persons in your household and their ages. Check with the NAP for the current limits.

ii. Can I get food stamps if I’m not working?

Yes, but you will most likely be required to participate in a work or training program. In the CNMI, this means registering with the Division of Employment Services (Dept. of Labor and Immigration). There are some instances where you do not have to comply with the work registration requirement, such as if you are younger than 18, 55 or older, are a full-time student, have a disability, or are at least six-months pregnant.

b. Assets.

Households may have $2,000 in readily accessible resources, like a bank account. Households may have $3,000 if at least one person is age 55 or older.
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4. THE GRIEVANCE PROCEDURE. What if I’m denied food stamps, or my food stamps are cut or stopped?

You have the right to a written notice if the NAP has decided to deny, terminate or lower the amount of your food stamps. The NAP notice must explain its decision. You have the right to challenge the decision by using the NAP’s grievance procedure.

a. For the grievance procedure, you have the right to request either an informal conference or fair hearing within 60 days of the food stamps denial, termination or decrease. Your request may be either oral or written. When you make your request, the NAP must provide you the grievance rules and procedure.

b. Notice of the conference or hearing is required and should explain what your grievance is about.

c. You may review your NAP file at a reasonable time before the hearing. The file must contain all the information that the NAP used in making its decision to deny, terminate or cut your food stamps.

d. A written order is required to issue within 5 business days of the hearing. The head of the NAP has 5 days after the hearing to review the order and make any changes. If this doesn’t happen, the order will become final. The order must be given to you within 5 days after it becomes final.

e. You have the right to continue to receive your food stamps during the grievance procedure.

f. The entire grievance procedure (from requesting a conference or hearing to receiving the NAP written decision) should take no longer than 60 days.

g. If you believe the final order is unfair, you can appeal it by filing a court action.
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5. What if I forget to tell the NAP about changes to my household, income or property?

You are responsible to report changes with the household's income, property, household members, or location of residence. If you don’t report these changes, the NAP may determine that you had been given too many food stamps in the past. If you owe a debt because of overissuance of food stamps, the NAP may try to collect payments from you, most likely by deducting a certain amount from your future monthly food stamp payments. If the NAP believes you were committing fraud by not reporting these changes, you may be disqualified from receiving food stamps for up to two years and be criminally liable.     back to top

6. What if an NAP caseworker treats me unfairly?

You have the right to ask for a hearing if your caseworker threatens you, does not follow the rules or tells you to do things that do not follow the rules, violates your privacy or does not treat you with dignity and respect. If this happens, you can file a grievance with the NAP to challenge the case worker’s improper or coercive behavior. back to top

Food Stamps in the CNMI (part 1 of 2)

The first of this two-post series provides a brief history and current status of food stamps in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The second post will provide a Q&A on your basic food stamp rights in the CNMI.

The CNMI Nutrition Assistance Program

In December 1980, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) worked with American Samoa and the CNMI to design food stamp programs tailored to their unique cultural, social and economic circumstances. Here, those efforts resulted in the creation of the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), the CNMI's version of the food stamps program. The NAP is administered by the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs and operates under a block grant from the USDA.

The NAP earmarks 30% of food stamps for the purchase of local commodities (food and nonfood items such as fishing equipment, garden supplies and livestock). The policy provides work incentives to develop self-sufficiency and stimulate the local economy.

In the early 1990s, there were no more than 1,000 food stamp beneficiaries on Saipan, Tinian and Rota. That number increased to 6,773 by 2004. In September 2007, the NAP was serving 7,945 household members. For fiscal year 2008, the NAP’s budget has been capped at $9.42 million. The NAP has recently resorted to across-the-board benefit reductions and waiting lists on an as-needed basis to cope with the limited funding.

USDA Food & Nutrition Service Fact Sheet: Nutrition Assistance Block Grants.

“Food stamp funding capped at $9.4M,” Saipan Tribune, Sept. 28, 2007.

“NMI asks for more food stamp funding, “ Marianas Variety, June 10, 2004.