Legislation that could clear the House in December would apply federal immigration and labor rules to the U.S. Commonwealth of The Northern Mariana Islands, which in the past three decades of local control has been tainted with charges of sweatshop and human trafficking abuses.
The bill is opposed by commonwealth Gov. Benigno Fitial, who says it ignores recent improvements in labor standards and could cripple attempts to revive the islands' depressed economy.
Over the past decade lawmakers have introduced several dozen bills addressing the Northern Marianas' immigration and labor practices and its right to use "Made in the USA" labels on garments made in factories employing poorly paid, poorly treated Chinese, Philippine and other Asian workers.
The lawmakers have little to show for their efforts. The lack of success was partly the work of Abramoff, now serving a six-year prison term on unrelated fraud charges.
The lobbyist received millions of dollars from the Marianas government to keep Washington at bay. He arranged trips to the 14-island chain for prominent lawmakers, including then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. DeLay returned from a 1997 trip to Saipan, the main island, praising its clothing factories and saying he believed they should keep their exemptions from U.S. labor law.