The Nonresident Worker
The most recent accurate data we have on the need on the composition of the population is derived form the 1990 census of population which is admittedly five years out of date. However, these data as presented do provide an indication of the need for such workers in the economy and are central to the point I wish to make. As may have been pointed out previously, at the time of the 1990 census the total employed labor force in the Commonwealth was 25,965 within a total population of 43,345 which included nonresident workers but omitted the average daily tourist population. At that time the total indigenous population was 17,181 persons, or 39.6 percent of the CNMI's total resident and nonresident population. The indigenous labor force (both those employed and unemployed), between the ages of 16 and 65 years numbered 7,476 of which it was estimated that 4,777 (63.8 percent) were employed. The remaining 2,699 (36.2 percent) consisted of retired people, students, housewives and others not desirous of employment.
The unemployment rate for the Commonwealth at that time was 2.3 percent. The lowest of any area under the American Flag. At the time of the census there were 21,188 nonresident workers which made up 81.6 percent of the labor force. Considering the annual rate of growth of the indigenous population as measured between 1973 and 1990 and assuming that this rate of growth continues, there will not be a sufficient local population within the indigenous labor force to staff the available jobs in the Commonwealth that existed in 1990, namely, 25,965 jobs, until well into the mid 21st century. One might legitimately ask: why not employ U. S. citizens from the mainland and elsewhere to staff the economy? The fact is that some do come to the islands – but a great many do not remain very long. Many people from large metropolitan areas on the U. S. mainland and elsewhere who move to the islands for employment reasons find adjustment difficult and do not remain long after their "initial" enthusiasm wears off. This is not meant to be critical of such people or the islands, it is simply a fact. Usually disenchantment of one spouse or the other is likely to result from one or more of the following: high cost of living compared with the United States particularly for food, rent and utilities; perceived limited medical facilities or educational opportunities; inability to adapt to a different environment; low wages and salaries compared with the mainland or limited employment opportunities for a spouse; the expense of moving household effects vast distances and the cost of reestablishing one's household; limited opportunities for professional growth; hot and humid climate; separation from family members on the mainland and the expense of returning for frequent visits; a service oriented economy that limits opportunities for some professions; limited cultural enrichment; no public transport; water shortages in some areas or special needs that cannot be met in the islands. The above are some of the reasons people leave the islands after a relatively short period and return to the U. S. mainland with the result that the U. S. mainland is does not appear to be the source, or solution, for the island's work force that one might otherwise assume. In the past it has been primarily the Philippines to which island employers have usually turned. The recruitment and maintenance of a nonresident worker for their first year of employment can cost a Commonwealth employer as much as $5,500. per person and this does not include their salary. The presence of such a large alien population is the subject of intense controversy in the islands. Those opposed to their presence cite the pressure on infrastructure facilities, hospital, water, recreational areas, etc. Those in favor cite their contribution, indeed, necessity for a growing economy. With regard to the latter the business community criticizes government efforts at regulation and cites “red tape” as an onerous, expensive and time consuming burden and certain members in United States Congress have been critical of the use by some businesses producing products for export to the United States in competition with American workers.
Some members of Congress have suggested that local control of immigration in the Commonwealth be withdrawn and the administration of immigration be placed under the laws of the United States with U. S. immigration authorities responsible for this element of government. Several frustrated Commonwealth businessmen have indicated that they will turn to the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, an area of high unemployment, for their labor force. Puerto Rician workers are United States citizens and can enter freely into the Commonwealth for any purpose. Employers would then not be obligated to provide employee housing, food, medical care, transportation, etc. as now required when alien workers are employed. This action, should it ever occur, would eventually present serious consequences with respect to local control of the government as these workers would come with all the rights and privileges of U. S. citizenship including the right to vote in local elections.