By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006 5:06 PM
House Democrats led by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced legislation today to extend key federal controls over a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, renewing an effort that was blocked for years by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and once-powerful Texas Republican Tom DeLay.
The bill aims to apply U.S. immigration law and basic labor protections, including the U.S. minimum wage, to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a U.S. territory 3,900 miles west of Hawaii. Human rights and labor investigators have found rampant abuses there over the years, notably the trafficking of women for a commercial sex trade and the exploitation of mostly female workers from poor Asian countries in a largely foreign-owned garment-manufacturing industry that uses the territory to turn out "Made in U.S.A." clothing exempt from U.S. tariffs and quotas.
As a lobbyist for the Northern Marianas government and, subsequently, the garment industry on the main island of Saipan, Abramoff enlisted DeLay and other Republican leaders in a battle against the Clinton administration, human rights groups, labor unions and a bipartisan group of lawmakers to preserve local control over immigration and the minimum wage.
In a 2001 pitch letter obtained by The Washington Post, Abramoff boasted to the then-governor of the commonwealth that his lobbying team had worked with DeLay and other congressional leaders to bottle up reform legislation, stymied the efforts of Republican critics such as former Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska and obtained "extra CNMI appropriations" from Congress for infrastructure projects on the islands of Tinian and Rota.
Now that Abramoff is headed to prison for fraud in a separate case and DeLay is leaving the House under indictment for alleged political money laundering in Texas, Miller and his allies hope their efforts to rein in the commonwealth will finally succeed.
"For years, DeLay and Abramoff used their power and influence and corrupt practices to defend the indefensible," Miller said in a statement accompanying the introduction of his bill. "The House of Representatives failed to stop extraordinary abuses of poor women guest workers in the textile and tourism industries in the Marianas despite overwhelming evidence documented by the federal government, Congress, the news media and other sources."
He charged that DeLay, the former House majority leader, and Abramoff, a conservative Republican who became one of Washington's top lobbyists, "ignored well-documented threats to American security, criminal activity, violations of labor law, forced abortions and human trafficking" in the Northern Marianas.
"They were running a protection racket," Miller said. "DeLay and Abramoff protected the Marianas garment industry from congressional scrutiny and were rewarded handsomely for it with trips, lucrative contracts, campaign money and more. The most exploited women in the world, and the American legislative process, paid the price."
Miller charged that DeLay, who was majority whip before becoming majority leader, "used his office to block Congress from considering our bipartisan reforms," telling key committee chairmen not to hold hearings on them.
"The bill we are introducing is a test of whether that protection racket continues today," said Miller, a member of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Northern Marianas.
A spokeswoman for DeLay, Shannon Flaherty, responded in a statement, "It's clearly good news to Democrats that Tom DeLay is leaving the House because they hate free-market values and everyone who defends them. Bad news is, socialists like George Miller still won't win."
DeLay is scheduled to step down Friday. He was among a number of lawmakers who traveled to the Northern Marianas on trips arranged by Abramoff. On one trip with his family and staffers over the 1997 New Year's holidays, he told his local hosts, "You are a shining light for what is happening to the Republican Party, and you represent everything that is good about what we are trying to do in America and leading the world in the free-market system." He later called the Northern Marianas "a perfect petri dish of capitalism," adding, "It's like my Galapagos Island."
At a news conference to publicize his bill, Miller also announced that he is releasing a May 2002 Justice Department report on the Marianas that he accused Abramoff of helping to suppress. The report found that continued local control over immigration would "seriously jeopardize the national security" of the United States. The two federal officials who wrote it were subsequently reassigned to lesser posts; one of them, who had initiated a criminal investigation into Abramoff's lobbying activities on Guam, was demoted from acting U.S. attorney for Guam and the CNMI to an assistant U.S. attorney under an appointee reportedly recommended by the Guam Republican Party and approved by top White House political strategist Karl Rove.
The legislation proposed by Miller, the U.S.-Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Human Dignity Act, would gradually impose the U.S. minimum wage, apply U.S. immigration law "as if the CNMI were a state," allow U.S. Customs agents to board ships in the CNMI and require studies by the Interior and Homeland Security departments on labor and human rights violations and security and immigration vulnerabilities. It would stipulate that no products could leave the Northern Marianas with a "Made in the U.S.A." designation, and no goods could be shipped to the United States free of duties or quotas, "unless the minimum wage was paid to the workers, all labor laws were obeyed and no indentured servitude was allowed."
Appearing with Miller at a Capitol Hill news conference to announce the bill were Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, and Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
"Let's give Tom DeLay a real going-away present" by passing the bill, Solis said. She said that with Saipan's garment industry starting to fold as quotas come down under worldwide trade accords and factories move to China, thousands of women garment workers who were brought in from countries such as China and the Philippines have become stranded on Saipan without jobs, and some are being forced to work in brothels.
"The situation has gotten even worse in some ways" since the 1990s, when attempts to impose federal controls were defeated by Abramoff and his allies, said Katherine Spillar, executive editor of Ms. Magazine, which recently investigated the conditions of foreign guest workers on Saipan.
Spillar said the magazine, which is published by the Feminist Majority Foundation, found that unemployed garment workers on Saipan "increasingly are finding themselves trafficked into the sex industry there," along with women from Russia and other countries who were promised jobs in restaurants at U.S. wages only to end up forced into prostitution. She said the vast majority of sex workers on Saipan now are former garment workers.