You know that Bob Schaffer thinks he’s getting a bum rap. The Colorado Republican Senate candidate says he’s never met Jack Abramoff, but more than anything, he says his comments that launched the controversy were taken out of context.
Speaking to a talk radio host earlier this week, Schaffer said that he hadn’t said that “I endorse everything that goes on in the [Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands]” — meaning forced abortions, and other human rights abuses. He’d meant “a very narrow aspect of the CNMI’s, of the commonwealth’s, immigration process, and that was a pre-process of qualifying foreign labor in their home country before they’re given entry visas to set foot on American soil.”
And that’s true, sort of. In his original comments to The Denver Post, Schaffer had been asked about guest-worker programs. And as a successful model for the U.S., he’d pointed to the Marianas, saying “prequalifying foreign workers in their home country under private- sector management” works “very well” there.
It was a comment that mirrored those of ex-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), Jack Abramoff’s staunchest ally in Congress, ten years before. From The Houston Chronicle in 1998:
Rather than impose more regulation on the [Marianas], DeLay said, the United States ought to adopt the islands’ business and labor practices by creating a guestworker program of its own ‘where particular companies can bring Mexican workers in’ to fill jobs that Americans won’t take. DeLay said the workers could be paid at ‘whatever wage the market will bear.’
DeLay had just returned from a tour of the Marianas, where he’d rung in the New Year. Abramoff, of course, had organized the trip, and his clients, the Marianas government and garment manufacturers there, had paid for it. In an interview with the Chronicle, “Delay said he saw nothing wrong with accepting the trip, and said Abramoff, who went on the trip as well, was just ‘doing his job (as a lobbyist).'” DeLay remains under federal investigation for his ties to Abramoff.
Beyond the free trips, the Marianas’ reliance on private sector management had a clear philosophical appeal to conservatives which Abramoff was keen to exploit. But doing so meant ignoring a host of evidence and findings that the Marianas’ guest worker system was at the heart of the abuses there.
A report by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1997, for instance, did not find that the system was working “very well” there.“Based on our observations… we believe that the CNMI’s system of immigration adjudication is not only grossly inadequate but, in many respects, particularly in the area of visa issuance, non-existent,” the report said. The system, the report said, had resulted in “serious abuses.” (You can read an excerpt from that report here.)
The report cited an example. A “taxi driver” on the islands had successfully obtained work permits for 160 Bangladeshis. The Bangladeshis spent “large sums of money” on human traffickers to get to the islands, bankrupting themselves and their families in the process, and then arrived to find that there were no jobs there. It was not a rare occurrence in a system that gave employers virtually total power over their employees, who could not change jobs upon coming to the islands.
A subsequent report by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform was even harsher. Judging that “[l]arge-scale ‘temporary’ guestworker programs present inherent problems for liberal democracies,” the report stated that the “foreign contract workers are easily exploited.” No other country in the world had policies like the islands, the report found. When Michael Teitelbaum, a Republican appointee and one of the two commissioners who’d authored the report, testified to Congress about their findings, he said that the islands’ system was a “diplomatic embarrassment to the United States.” (You can read an excerpt from that report here.)
Both reports recommended that the islands’ system be overhauled and gradually shifted to one conforming with U.S. immigration. It was a result that Abramoff was hired to fight, since the garment manufacturers there relied on the easily-exploitable foreign workers (the guest worker population actually outnumbered the U.S. citizens on the islands). House Republicans, particularly DeLay and Rep. Don Young (R-AK), successfully blocked such reform for years, but Congress finally followed that recommendation earlier this month.
Of course, none of this was or is unknown to Schaffer. In 1999, for instance, at the same House resources committee hearing where Teitelbaum testified, Schaffer had the opportunity to question a Bangladeshi who said that he’d been the victim of human traffickers. But rather than asking the man about his experience, Schaffer chose to interrogate him about whether he’d been paid by Interior officials to protest the working conditions there. Maybe if he hadn’t stuck to Abramoff’s playbook, he would have learned something.