Celina Roberto Babauta wants Arnold Palacios to appoint the CNMI’s first chief justice – Jose Dela Cruz – to lead Section 902 talks with the U.S. government this year. In a letter to the governor last week, the senator recommended Mr. Dela Cruz writing, “I can think of no one more suitable to provide you with the legal advice you may need than … Dela Cruz.”
Section 902 refers to a section of the CNMI’s covenant with the United States government that established the Commonwealth and provided the CNMI a unique opportunity for its government to call for and negotiate federal matters of mutual interest with the U.S. government. It is formally known as Article IX, Section 902 of the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (Covenant). This is the section in its entirety:
“The Government of the United States and the Government of the Northern Mariana Islands will consult regularly on all matters affecting the relationship between them. At the request of either Government, and not less frequently than every ten years, the President of the United States and the Governor of the Northern Mariana Islands will designate special representatives to meet and to consider in good faith such issues affecting the relationship between the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States as may be designated by either Government and to make a report and recommendations with respect thereto. Special representatives will be appointed in any event to consider and to make recommendations regarding future multi-year financial assistance to the Northern Mariana Islands pursuant to Section 701, to meet at least one year prior to the expiration of every period of such financial assistance.”
“At these consultative discussions, the CNMI needs to focus on the key issues affecting the CNMI now and in the near future, and which would require either U.S. Congressional action, federal agency regulatory actions, amendments to existing laws and regulations,” Ms. Babauta said, adding she reached out to Mr. Dela Cruz and he “is standing by” for the governor’s call on the matter.
“One of the most pressing matters that should be discussed at the next U.S.-CNMI Covenant Section 902 consultation talks is the need to resuscitate the non-performing economy of the CNMI,” Mr. Dela Cruz wrote in an opposite editorial (op-ed) published on Kandit Friday.
After describing the CNMI government’s failure to hone its tourism industry the past 20 years, Mr. Dela Cruz wrote that Section 902 talks should address “the immigration and labor needs of the CNMI. This subject is one of the most critical issues affecting the CNMI. Federal immigration and labor law requirements with respect to the CNMI must be tailored and fine-tuned by the U.S. Government, i.e., the U.S. Congress, so that the CNMI could develop and maintain a productive, insular economy.”
The CNMI’s former ability to control immigration issues, he argued, “enabled the CNMI to bring into the CNMI both skilled and unskilled foreign workers needed by the visitor and its ancillary construction industry, as well as to be able to introduce any new industry in the islands.”
“During his tenure, he presided over landmark cases with significant implications for the CNMI’s legal landscape, including those related to immigration, federal preemption, and the Covenant relationship,” Ms. Babauta wrote about Mr. Dela Cruz. “His deep understanding of the CNMI’s unique legal and political framework will be crucial in navigating the complexities of the 902 negotiations.”
Mr. Dela Cruz, in his op-ed, wrote about how the CNMI lost its control of immigration and labor issues to “federal takeover” legislation in the George W. Bush era, and blamed the circumstances leading to that loss on the CNMI’s political and business institutions.
“Such fault on the part of CNMI government and business leaders caused the federal takeover of immigration matters in the CNMI,” he wrote. .”But although the fault lies primarily with the political and business leaders of the CNMI, the federal takeover legislation still should have been crafted and tailored by the U.S. Congress in a way that would address the critical manpower needs of the CNMI, as well as the obligation of the U.S. to help spur the CNMI’s fragile, insular economy in the Pacific, situated thousands of miles away from the continental United States.”
There simply are not enough skilled workers to sustain economic development even in the tourism industry, Mr. Dela Cruz argued.
“While the CNMI needs to have more visitors to the islands in order to improve and promote its visitor industry, it still needs skilled and unskilled foreign workers to provide the labor needs of the visitor industry, as well as any other new industry that to be introduced and which is a “good fit” for the CNMI,” he wrote, continuing:
“So, a complete and thorough review of the existing U.S. immigration and labor laws applicable to the CNMI must be conducted by both the CNMI and the U.S. Government at this year’s consultation talks. Indeed, it is recommended that the two sides should draft a new set of federal immigration and labor law that is specifically tailored to meet the manpower needs of the CNMI and the ability to bring in more visitors from other countries, aside from Korea and Japan. This should be done by the two governments to the Covenant Section 902 consultations so that, among others, it would reduce the CNMI’s ever growing dependence on federal financial assistance. But as we also should realize, absent such federal financial assistance, the overall financial condition of the CNMI Government would have gone into bankruptcy during the past five years.”
Ms. Babauta, in her letter to Governor Palacios, expounded on Mr. Dela Cruz’s legal, academic, and political experience in the CNMI that make him uniquely qualified to lead the government’s negotiations, if the governor decides to engage in talks.
“The 902 talks hold immense importance for the future of the CNMI,” she wrote to Mr. Palacios. “Securing a favorable outcome requires a team with exceptional legal talent, negotiation expertise, and a deep understanding of the CNMI’s unique position. Chief Justice Dela Cruz embodies these qualities and would be a great asset to your 902 legal team.”