- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Protectionism can take many forms. It need not be tariffs and quotas. It can involve disabling regulation and bureaucratic control as well. This is the case with Sen. Frank Murkowski's bill to shut down the Mariana Islands, a Far East Pacific American territory. The bill was a priority of the long-gone Clinton administration, but Mr. Murkowski, Alaska Republican, is still trying to ram it through the Energy and Commerce Committee he chairs.

The Marianas adopted pro-free market policies 25 years ago, and have enjoyed robust economic growth as a result. Their economy, based primarily on the garment industry and tourism, produces so many jobs the islands need thousands of guest workers from nearby countries to keep everything going.

The indigenous residents, who are full American citizens, have benefited greatly from this booming economy. Their median household income has soared from $8,900 in 1980 to $30,700 in 1999.

Federal taxpayers have benefited as well. Local revenues from the booming economy finance 87 percent of the Marianas' government budget. This is not only higher than any other U.S. territory, some of which are mostly financed with federal funds. It is higher than any state and local government as well.

But protectionist garment industry unions and manufacturers back here on the mainland are not happy over this Far East competition, even though the Marianas only account for one half of 1 percent of U.S. garment sales. Hence we have Mr. Murkowski still pushing an old, protectionist, Clinton bill.

The bill provides for a federal takeover of the local immigration authority under which the Marianas government now issues temporary guest worker visas. This local authority was granted to the Marianas by the original Covenant under which the islands became part of the U.S.

The incompetent Immigration and Naturalization Service, which cannot even handle its immigration responsibilities on the mainland U.S., would then administer federal immigration law on the faraway islands, under a mandate to phase out guest worker visas over 10 years. Without the guest workers, the garment industry on the islands would then shut down. Mr. Murkowski himself acknowledged last year that the bill's backers were hoping it would be "the end of the garment industry in the Marianas."

The bill's backers attempt to justify it with tall tales of slave labor and harsh labor camp working conditions for the foreign workers. This disinformation campaign has been one of the pet causes of the union-allied national Left in recent years, often echoing in the major national media.

But guest workers have long clamored quite eagerly to come to the islands, where they earn far more than they would at home. Now recent federal reports reveal the phoniness of the smear campaign against the Marianas, and the folly of Mr. Murkowski's bill.

For two years, the Marianas government and garment industry have been working closely with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to build a strong worker health and safety record. Frank Strasheim, OSHA administrator for the region, now says, "They're well on their way to becoming a model for the rest of the world. I'm impressed by the [industry's] commitment in placing the safety and health of their workers first."

Moreover, a recent GAO report concluded that the Marianas have a highly effective and modern immigration control operation, with a computerized tracking system monitoring each guest worker. These workers must submit to criminal background checks and health screenings.

The GAO report echoes the findings of the U.S. Customs Service that the local Marianas customs operation is also highly effective and modern. U.S. Customs concluded that "fraud, diversion, or transhipment of goods involving [the Marianas] do not appear to be a problem."

Another recent GAO report documents the devastation that Mr. Murkowski's bill would wreak on the Marianas economy. It echoed an earlier internal Interior Department report's conclusion that if immigration on the islands were federalized and guest workers phased out, "the economy of the … Marianas would be severely damaged, and … the standard of living of the U.S. citizens residing there would suffer tremendously. Major existing industries could virtually collapse, leaving few sources of export earnings. The economy would be sent into a catastrophic contraction."

The Clinton officials pushing the anti-Marianas vendetta were found to be using their government offices and time to blatantly support the election opponents of top Republicans who have opposed their legislative foolishness, such as Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, Dana Rohrabacher, Phil English, and others. The Clinton officials' conduct openly violated a raft of federal laws, starting with the Hatch Act.

The question is, why is Mr. Murkowski still carrying their water?

Peter Ferrara is an associate professor of law at the George Mason University School of Law.

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