It is an over used phrase, cheapened by Bush, politicians, talking heads, marketing mavens and lazy journalists.
Have you ever met an American Hero?
I mean, a real one—one not invented by hype or crafted out of talking points.
They are out there.
They are regular people, who are confronted by events and then rise to the occasion to do the right thing. Some are celebrated. Some are not, but you’ll know when you meet one. In an age of cynicism, they show us what is good about America and humanity.
I know one of these American Heroes.
Her name is Wendy Doromal.
She is an extraordinary woman who has been fighting to extend basic human rights to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) for more than 25 years. Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay and The Pirates of Saipan have spent thousands of hours and piles of cash to stop her. She’s been threaten, slandered, shot at, belittled and ignored.
Still, she keeps fighting.
Finally, victory is close at hand. And so is another defeat.
She needs your help.
To the jump...
On August 15th, the House Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Insular Affairs will hold a Hearing on the CNMI.
So far the voices of the Workers are not on the schedule. We need to change that. Congress needs to hear their stories.
You can help. Some action steps are towards the end of this Diary.
What drew me in, was the organized abuse of Guest Workers on the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a US Territory in the Western Pacific some 40 miles North of Guam.
Nine years ago, I had just started working at Co-op America a National nonprofit dedicated to harnessing economic action to build a socially just and environmentally sound planet.
In 1998 we were working to end sweatshops and promote real alternatives, like transparency and Fair Trade. (We still are).
By 1999, I was researching the supply chain, the companies involved, the laws that made it possible and economic/consumer-based solutions. My research led me to take a closer look at the conditions of Guest Workers on the CNMI.
I was appalled. This was very close to modern slavery.
The workers came from many impoverished countries and they were being used as expendable commodities to increase profits of the greedy. They effectively had no rights. Economic pressure and consumer/shareholder demand for corporate accountability could (and did) help end some sweatshops around the globe, but to solve the abuse on this rogue US Territory it would require action from the Federal government.
In 1999, I thought it would end. I thought Congress would act to stop the abuse. A Bill passed the Senate. It had widespread support in the House, but the effort was killed. It never came up for a vote.
I was stunned. I had been naively optimistic.
I wanted to find out why. I started digging. I found Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay and a modern Republican Party that operated like a gang of petty criminals. They were on the take and so they were perfect partners for The Pirates of Saipan, another gang of criminals profiting off corruption and the deals that can be made in the shadows of the global economy.
Since 1999, I have been fighting this nexus of corruption and its corrosive impact its had on Washington DC and the Marianas Islands.
My research has been helpful, especially as many reporters, writers and researchers tried to get a handle on the Abramoff scandal. My work had an impact last November. We defeated 20 of the Abramoff 65, a group of Republican candidates I identified as having multiple connections to Jack Abramoff. I actively helped many campaigns use this story to illustrate the Republican Culture of Corruption and the need to replace the GOP with Democrats. I was very busy last fall.
We rode the story of abuse on the CNMI to many of those corruption related victories. We used the stories of the sweatshops, the forced abortions, the human trafficking, the forced prostitution, the labor abuse, the money laundering and on and on to rub the nose of the Republican Party in their cesspool of corruption.
But these are not just stories. These are real events that happened and are happening to real people. These people have names, they have families, they have hopes and dreams and they have been asking for justice for years and years.
It is a justice DeLayed and denied.
Last week, the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a Hearing on Senate Bill 1634. As always, the witness table was filled with the usual suspects, the old guard was out in force. Especially galling was the presence of Benigno R. (Ben) Fitial, the current Governor of Saipan. He owes his office to Abramoff, DeLay and the Republican syndicate. He owes his livelihood to his Chinese patrons, the Hong Kong based Tan Family (who are also patrons of Abramoff, DeLay, the Republican Party, George W. Bush and—oddly—Hillary Clinton).
It was a strange Hearing. At one point, Fitial proudly took ownership of the CNMI’s failed guest worker system. He said he created this system back in 1982 and I believe him. Fitial is woven into every facet of corruption on the CNMI and he has been for years.
Missing from the Hearing were the voices of the foreign contract workers on the CNMI. Not only were they absent, but Senator Akaka and the Pirates of Saipan seemed to agree that the workers were less than human. Akaka was actively horse trading the weak rights for workers proposed in S. 1634 to placate those stealing the labor of the Guest Workers. (WTF?)
The voices of the workers were not heard in the Hearing, but thanks to a Real American Hero, they will be included the official record.
I’m talking about Wendy Doromal.
She is a school teacher in Florida. She saved money for three years so she could go back to the CNMI this summer—on her own dime—to document current conditions on the CNMI for guest workers and the victims of human trafficking and labor abuse.
Wendy sent me and I delivered to the Senate a statement by these workers:
Dear Chairman Bingaman:
We are foreign contract workers in the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). We have lived and worked in this community for 5, 10, 15, or 20 or more years. We have served the community as nurses, security guard technicians, mechanics, accountants, engineers, farmers, domestic workers, entertainers, construction, workers, fishermen, hotel workers, garment workers, restaurant workers, office staff and other positions. We were invited here to work and have contributed much to the community. We are the threads that hold the economic fabric of the CNMI together. We make up the majority of the population in the CNMI, but we have no vote. We pay taxes and many of us have social security and Medicare taxes taken from our pay, yet Most of us will never receive those benefits. We are often victims of criminal acts, but we cannot serve on juries. We are voiceless.
The illegal alien workers in the mainland United States have had their voices raised by the U.S. Senate who created a bill to raise their status. As legal nonresident workers also Laboring and living on U.S. soil don't we deserve to have our voices raised by the United States Senate also? An estimated 3,000 of us are documented as having United States citizen children who have lived in the CNMI all of their lives. Presently, we have no way to be United States citizens ourselves. Once we have completed with our contracts we are forced to return to our home countries. How will we be able to provide our U.S. citizen children with education, healthcare and nutrition?
We do believe CNMI is not only a part of the U.S., but is really U.S. soil. As workers, we have seen that the U.S. Constitution is not followed here in the CNMI. We do not understand this. The U.S. Constitution states that all residents of the United States are treated equally and given freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The CNMI and United States are one country, but has two systems—one democratic and one that supports indentured servitude and refuses to enforce U .S. law.
We need to have federalization of U.S. immigration laws. For years we have suffered with an insecure status and are in the islands only as indentured servants. Many of us have been victims of illegal recruitment and labor and human rights abuses. Many of us had labor cases that have never been resolved, back wages never recovered, and criminal attacks never prosecuted. We were told that the United States was a democracy, but we do not live in a democratic society here. We urge you to pass legislation that would federalize immigration and help us to achieve the stability and United States citizenship we deserve.
The statement was signed by more than 3,000 workers when I delivered it to the Senate. These workers have names. They have stories. Each signature was followed by where the worker lived in the CNMI and how many years they have lived there. Many more signatures have been gathered since then and will be added to the Record.
They are asking for justice. We have a chance to end the years of abuse. Tom and Jack are otherwise engaged. If we fail now, it will be the fault of Democrats and progressives who can’t find the time to end modern slavery on US Soil. If we fail now it will be our shame.
We can hear their stories because of Wendy Doromal.
You wouldn’t know her courage if you passed her on the street. Her appearance does not reveal her power, integrity and her steal resolve to end the abuse on the CNMI.
From my research, I know the tales of abuse and the greed behind them. I know what Abramoff and the Republican Party have done to protect this abuse.
I know the stories of the foreign contract workers enticed to come to the CNMI. I know the stories of victims of human trafficking. I know many of these stories because of Wendy’s work.
I know the stories, but Wendy knows their eyes.
She told me of a time, back in 1980s when she was a school teacher and an artist living on the Island of Rota. It was a tropical paradise, but things were changing.
By 1982, Ben Fitial and some others had created a Guest Worker system to import foreign contract workers to the CNMI. Not only would this fuel decades of sweatshops sewing "Made in the USA" labels in Chinese owned factories, it would also fuel a growing sex trade and a dependence of foreign workers by the indigenous Chamorro/Carolinian population.
Within a few years many locals started hiring their own maids and farm workers—even the folks on welfare could afford one. Because these workers had no rights, it was easy to abuse them. Nobody would punish you and a system of modern slavery under the US Flag was born. It is still going strong.
It was at the start of this system of abuse when Wendy was confronted with a choice: action or inaction. A Filipino maid had run away from her employers. She had been repeated raped and beaten. One day, she came to Wendy’s door for help.
Wendy did not turn her away. She tried to help and when it became clear that the local power structure would not protect these victims of abuse on Rota, Wendy and others started a modern underground railroad to smuggle victims off the island to safety.
Word spread, more victims of abuse came for help. Wendy wrote letters and traveled to Saipan to seek help for the victims on Rota. Instead of help, Wendy found even more cases of abuse. She wrote letters. By 1992 she wrote her first report about the abuse for Congress. By 1995 she had convinced the Government of the Philippines to ban workers from traveling to the CNMI for their own safety.
Wendy’s work made her a hero to the workers and anybody with a thirst for justice, but she drove the Pirates of Saipan crazy. They hated her. She was threatened. Her children were too. Shots were fired. She had to leave Rota and then Saipan. She returned to the States, but before she left she promised the workers that America was a just and good Nation, that we would end the abuse. (It is a promise still waiting to be fulfilled).
In early 1995 she had every reason to believe that as bi-partisan legislation to extend Federal labor, immigration and custom laws to the CNMI was moving through Congress.
Then, the Pirates of Saipan hire Jack Abramoff and the Republican Party to block reform. Job #1 was attacking Wendy Doromal. Teams were sent to the Philippines to remove the ban on sending more workers into the maw of abuse. It was removed. A great effort was spent tracking Wendy’s movements and communications. An even greater effort was spent attacking her and any story of abuse on the CNMI she tried to tell. When she testified before Congress it was Wendy, by herself, against Abramoff, the Pirates and a team of dozens of flunkies all trying to keep her silent.
By 1996, Team Abramoff learned that Readers Digest was working on a profile about Wendy and her work on the CNMI. The story would go on to detail horrific cases of abuse, forced prostitution and human trafficking. By May of 1997 Abramoff had his hands on an advance copy of the story and he emailed it to his contact on the CNMI (you can download a copy of that email here). Jack and his Team spent hundreds of hours pushing back on this story. Jack even had Congressman Ralph Hall of Texas enter an attack on a rape victim into the Congressional Record. Once again, the goal was to keep Wendy and the voice of the workers silent.
It didn’t work.
In 1998, Wendy returned to the CNMI leading a Team for President Clinton’s Department of the Interior. They arrived just weeks after Tom DeLay’s New Year’s trip. They interview hundreds of workers. They wrote a damning report and by 1999 Wendy was testifying once again before Congress.
The 1998 report and her 1999 Hearing testimony was when I first came across Wendy. Over time the Abramoff scandal would break. It was through my Diaries here at Daily Kos that Wendy and I connected. Since then we have become friends. We were very glad when Democrats took control of the 110th Congress, because it seemed that ending the abuse on the CNMI would be a no-brainer for them.
So far, some good things have happen. The Minimum Wage was extended (finally) to the CNMI. It is a great victory, but only if it is paired with an end to the systematic abuse and the extension of Federal Immigration, labor and custom laws to the CNMI.
It is way past time for reform.
Both Bills are similar and both share common flaws. Perhaps the most glaring is that these invited workers in the CNMI—who are there legally and have been there for years and years—do not have any pathway to US Citizenship.
While these Bills have some problems, it is important to remember that the goal of the Pirates and their allies is to delay legislation, slow it down and once again kill reform. We can not let them run that same game plan again.
We have to use this Legislation as the vehicle for Reform and work to strengthen them. Adding these changes would greatly improved the legislation:
- Create a pathway to Citizenship for Guest Workers who have been on the CNMI for more than five years—and a Green Card for all workers with children who are US Citizens.
- Outline a clear appeals process for any worker denied Immigration Status and/or other rights by the local CNMI Government through new or existing Federal systems of appeals.
- Mandate that all CNMI entry visa programs—both work and tourist—are run by the Federal Government. (To allow the local CNMI Government to run a tourist visa program is to allow human trafficking.)
- Mandate random, spot check interviews of guest workers and tourists as they arrive and leave the CNMI to ensure that they were (and are not) victims of abuse.
If we can add amendments to make the above changes, we could have final legislation that is real reform.
To make these changes we need to have the voices of the workers heard.
This is where YOU come in!
On August 15th, the House Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Insular Affairs will hold a Hearing on the CNMI.
According to the CNMI Papers 15 people are already schedule to speak at the Hearing and:
Included on the list are legislative leaders, former governors, and community and business leaders, according to CNMI Resident Representative Pete A. Tenorio. He did not identify them.
You will note that the voices of the workers are once again missing from the discussion.
They need to be there.
Please, make some noise
Contact the staff of the subcommittee:
Subcommittee on Insular Affairs
1337 Longworth House Office Building
(202) 225-0691 Fax: (202) 225-0521
Staff Director – Tony Babauta
Counsel – Brian Modeste
Clerk – Allison Cowan
Contact the Members of the Insular Affairs Subcommittee:
Mrs. Donna M. Christensen, Virgin Islands, Chairwoman
Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, American Samoa
Raúl M. Grijalva, Arizona
Madeleine Z. Bordallo, Guam
Nick J. Rahall, II, West Virginia (ex officio)
Mr. Luis G. Fortuño, Puerto Rico, Ranking Republican Member
Elton Gallegly, California
Jeff Flake, Arizona
Don Young, Alaska (ex officio)
Ask them, politely but firmly, to include the voices of the workers at the August, 15 CNMI Hearing. Congress should hear from Boni Sagana, President of Dekada and Ronnie Doca, President of Filcowa and Jerry Custodio, President of the Human Dignity Act Movement. These are all leaders working together to organize the workers and advocate for their rights. They should hear from some of the 3,000 plus US Citizen children of these legal workers on the CNMI.
They should call Lauri Ogumoro of Karidat Social Services to hear about the women her organization has rescued from the human trafficking sex trade and those they have not been able to rescue (I was told that there is a group of sixteen women imprisoned in one of the many sex clubs on the CNMI who have are still awaiting rescue).
They should meet with Wendy Doromal to testify about her summer spent investigating the current situation on the CNMI. They should read her 7-19-07 statement to Senate Hearing on the CNMI (PDF).
Wendy will be in Washington soon in early August to try and get Members of the 110th Congress to read her new 2007 CNMI Report, to watch the video of workers testifying and hear about the current state of affairs on the far flung US Territory.
Call your Senator and Member of Congress and urge them to meet with Wendy when she is in town. Call them especially if they are a members of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Call you favorite Presidential Candidate’s campaign. Urge them to meet with Wendy and take a stand on this issue.
If you’re interested in setting up a Blogger call with Wendy, let me know. Or let me know if you have any ideas on how we can spread the word and end this decades old abuse on US soil.
Wendy has looked in the eyes of these workers. She has told them that this is a good Country, that justice is possible. For years, that promise has rung hollow as the Republican Party bent over backwards to protect the system of abuse.
Today, Tom and Jack are otherwise engaged. The Democrats control Congress. This issue impacts less than 80,000 people. If we can not deal with such a small bit of trouble, then we are doomed to fail as we try bigger things.
We have many messes to clean up. This one should be on the list.
It is not everyday that you are asked to lend a hand to a Real American Hero, but your help is request.
Write a letter, make a call, send a fax, and spread the word.
Let’s have a win for justice.
It will feel great.