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Saipan and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas; 7th in a 21st Century American Colonies series

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Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Marianas Islands in 1521 in his attempt to circumnavigate the world.  The Pacific island group had been settled for 3,500 years, first by immigrants from the Philippines and then the Carolina Islands who blended into the Chamorro people living in the islands when the first Europeans arrived. 

Spain claimed possession of the archipelago in 1565 and established the first colonial settlement in 1668.  After losing the Spanish-American War in 1898 Spain ceded Guam to the United States.  In 1899, Spain sold the Northern Marianas to Germany, which operated a large copra industry.  Located north of Guam the 14-island group covers a three-hundred mile stretch of ocean.  Saipan, Rota and Tinian are the three major populated islands.

 

Japan gained control of the islands in 1914, the first year of World War I when Germany was too busy to defend its far-flung possessions.  In 1920, the League of Nations gave Japan a mandate over the islands.  Thirty thousand nationals moved to Saipan to work in the sugar industry.  Japan lost Saipan and the Marianas with its surrender to the United States in 1945.

 

In the first two years after World War II, the United States ruled Northern Marianas under a military government.  In 1947, the Trust Territory of Pacific Islands was formed with the United States as administering trustee.

 

In 1976, Congress approved a negotiated Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands in Political Union with the United States.  The new Commonwealth established a constitution in 1977 and in 1986 qualified islanders were granted U.S. citizenship by Presidential Proclamation No. 5564.

 

In 1990, the United Nations terminated the Trust Territory status of the Commonwealth in light of formal control of the islands by the United States.  Most federal laws apply in the Commonwealth.  Exempt are customs laws, tax laws, minimum wage and immigration laws.  The grant of citizenship was restricted denying island residents a vote in federal elections or for President.

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The non-enforcement of immigration, custom, and minimum wage laws have turned Saipan into a garment manufacturing center with dozens of sweatshops dotting the island and creating an influx of immigrants who now outnumber U.S. citizens.  The lucrative, unregulated economy lured convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay in search of easy money.

In 2000, the Senate passed labor reform legislation to give some relief to the underpaid and overworked Saipan sweatshop garment workers.  The industry responded and hired Abramoff to stop the bill, which he did with the help of Representative Tom Delay who was wined and dined on a golf junket to Saipan.  Instead of human misery, Delay only saw the success of capitalism in providing jobs and he boasted about the benefits of unregulated capitalism.

 

The huge influx of immigrants to work in the garment factories has created numerous problems and led to a petition to reapportion CNMI legislative seats on the basis of citizenship rather than population.  The case for reapportionment is currently pending before the CNMI Supreme Court.  Chief Justice Miguel Demapan has agreed to issue a prompt ruling before the November 2007 election according to the Saipan Tribune.  The reapportionment is overdue and under the CNMI Constitution should have been done in 2001.

 

One controversial aspect of the CNMI Constitution is the restriction on land ownership to persons of Northern Marianas descent.  However, the influx of foreigners and the exploitive conditions in the garment factories by large American corporations create an environment that makes native residents protect their customs and way of life.

 

American economic colonialism is nowhere else so dramatically evident as on the island of Saipan.  First the Spanish, then the Germans, then the Japanese, and now the Americans exploit the island economy.  Little wonder CNMI residents seek to prevent outside land ownership in the colony.  Despite the fierce military battle for Saipan in World War II and the publicity generated by Abramoff and Delay's lobbying victory for the corporations, few Americans know of Saipan and the Northern Marianas.  Even fewer understand the Commonwealth status, which grants limited U.S. citizenship and selective enforcement of federal laws.

 21st Century American Colonies is a series of articles that explore the acquisition, control and status of modern-day colonies of the United States.  Although the colonies are now called "unincorporated territories" the second-class nature of U.S. citizenship of residents of the territories continues to define the colonial status.  Permission is granted to reproduc

 

Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, law, nutrition, ethics, and music. Richardson is also a political consultant.

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