Former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, recently released from prison, is making the rounds with a new book and a new, contrite perspective on his past activities. Ironically, his book hits the stands in the same month that a crisis is coming to a head in the remote Pacific islands over which Abramoff waged bitter partisan battles many years ago — a crisis that stems directly from those old battles. And although these events are occurring halfway around the world, they offer plenty of lessons for those of us on the U.S. mainland.
For the few Americans who have heard of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, it is most likely because of the Abramoff scandal. It has been over a decade since Abramoff last lobbied on behalf of the CNMI government, and the intervening years have not been kind to the islands. The CNMI is in the throes of a man-made social and economic disaster that serves as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of guest-worker policies and the Minimum Wage. The guest workers of the CNMI now face a November 27 deadline that may force thousands of them to leave the only home many of them have known for their adult lives — and take their U.S. citizen children with them.
When the Northern Marianas became a U.S. territory in 1978, it was granted important — but revocable — exemptions from federal law. Exempted from federal immigration law, the CNMI could import as many guest workers as it wanted. Another exemption allowed garment factories to employ the guest workers — mostly from China— for well below the U.S. minimum wage. The CNMI’s status as a U.S. territory allowed the factories to ship their garments to the mainland duty-free — with the “Made in the USA” label.
This arrangement seemed too good to be true, especially to Congressional Democrats and their Big Labor patrons. During the Clinton administration, Congressman George Miller (D-CA) and others fought to strip the CNMI of its prized exemptions. Several labor abuses in the territory came to light during that period. The CNMI government and the garment industry hired Abramoff to thwart the “federal takeover” of the CNMI’s wage and immigration laws. Abramoff’s allies in the GOP-controlled House successfully defended the exemptions, arguing that the islands’ fragile economy would collapse without them.
The CNMI’s hotels and other businesses were also importing cheap labor from Asia. The CNMI evolved — or devolved — into a two-tier society with low-wage guest workers staffing almost the entire private sector and the locals employed almost exclusively by the CNMI government. The CNMI imported so many guest workers that the aliens eventually came to outnumber the locals.
When the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006, George Miller became a powerful member of the new House majority. And while Abramoff was long gone from the islands and incapacitated by legal troubles, Miller was determined to exact revenge against Abramoff’s ghost. The Democrats quickly introduced a bill to increase the U.S. minimum wage to $7.25, and included a provision to require the CNMI — which then had a minimum wage of $3.05 — to phase in the new U.S. minimum wage.