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October 1999, Volume 6, Number 10

Congress: More Change?

Many immigration advocate organizations held rallies in mid-September 1999 to bolster efforts in Congress to "fix" 1996 immigration and welfare legislation. The 1996 legislation expedited deportation procedures, imposed new income restrictions and restricted the access of legal immigrants to federal welfare benefits. Some of the restrictions on the access of legal immigrants to means-tested welfare benefits have been relaxed and Fix 96 aims to make additional changes in 1996 and 1997 legislation.

For example, the Central American and Haitian Adjustment Act of 1999 would amend the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) to extend to nationals of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti, the ability to become US immigrants that NACARA already gives Nicaraguans and Cubans. NACARA assumes that persons in the US who left Communist-ruled nations would face hardship if returned, but imposes a higher level of proof on persons from countries such as El Salvador who want to regularize their status.

The US offered TPS to Nicaraguans and Hondurans who were in the US by December 31, 1998, so that they would not have to return to countries devastated by Hurricane Mitch. Some observers expected that hundreds of thousands of Central Americans would apply for TPS. By September 27, 1999, however, the INS had received only about 106,400 applications, had issued about 74,028 work permits and had granted TPS to 23,441 applicants. Foreigners with TPS are eligible for work permits; one purpose of issuing work permits was to sustain remittances. TPS is scheduled to last only until July 5, 2000.

In 1998, Nicaraguans in the US remitted $158 million to Nicaragua.

On September 28, President Clinton extended TPS to Liberians for one more year. Clinton is deferring the deportations for one year in order to promote stability in Liberia and West Africa. Clinton was concerned that if the US deported Liberians it might spur countries in West Africa to expel the thousands of Liberians who fled there because of civil war. Between 10,000 and 15,000 Liberians have fled to the US since the temporary protection program was first introduced in 1991.

During the civil war in Liberia, which lasted from 1989 to 1997, 200,000 died and half of the nation's 2.6 million people were forced from their homes. The economy was disrupted, unemployment is 75 percent and the country has no electricity or sewage facilities.

Marianas. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is opposing a bill, S1052, that would require the US Attorney General to determine if the CNMI is effectively administering its own immigration laws—the CNMI is a U.S. territory with the right to establish its own immigration and labor laws. Since 1986, residents of the CNMI have been US citizens. Most US laws apply there, but Congress decided against applying immigration law and the federal minimum wage law while the islands struggled to become economically self-sufficient.

The US Interior Department has urged Congress to approve tightening immigration laws in the Marianas. Interior argues that local Mariana officials and Asian sewing manufacturers have combined to import thousands of Chinese and Filipino seamstresses as guest workers to sew clothing that enters the US with Made-in-America labels. In many places, working conditions are poor. For example, some of the foreign seamstresses work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and must repay bribes and fees they paid in their countries of origin to get the Marianas jobs.

In FY98, Saipan shipped about $1 billion worth of clothing to the US; if it had been sewn outside the US customs barrier, about $200 million of duty would have had to have been paid. In August 1999, four US retailers-- Nordstrom Inc., J. Crew Group Inc., Cutter & Buck Inc. and Gymboree Corp.—settled a class-action lawsuit and agreed to create a $1.25 million fund to cover the cost of independent monitoring of their Saipan contractors, who have agreed to comply with U.S. labor laws and international human rights treaties.

President Clinton, in an announcement celebrating Citizenship Day and Constitution Week, proposed the creation of the $70 million Common Ground Partnerships, an initiative that, if approved by Congress, would combine expanded English language instruction with education in civics and life skills.

Steve Forbes, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said that immigrant integration should be likened to a melting pot, not a salad bowl: "the pieces of glue in this country, is not the traditional ones of common ancestry, single religion, single race, an aristocracy, strong military or something like that. It's come from shared values. Fundamental shared values and aspirations. Freedom, democracy, rule of law, individual equality before the law, opportunity -- anyone has a chance to get ahead. You're protected by the law if you try to do it. Basic optimism. Faith in the future."

Melissa B. Robinson, "Liberians' Deportation Deferred," AP, September 28, 1999. Patricia Sengerle, "Central Americans seek US immigration plan," Reuters, September 27, 1999.