Population Collapse in the Northern Mariana Islands

If you were to look at population growth rates around the world, the first thing you would notice is a lot of African countries (and the migrant-heavy United Arab Emirates) at the top of the list, which is fairly common knowledge (in 2011, by the way, Zimbabwe topped the list with a yearly growth rate of 4.31% according to the World Factbook).  On the flip, a fair of amount of European countries, along with Japan (a topic we looked at on this website last year), have completed demographic transition and are now seeing their populations either flatten out or outright decline.  This is largely attributed to low birth rates and, especially in Japan, low levels of immigration.  In these cases, the rate of decline is still pretty close to zero (in 2011 Japan’s rate of growth was -0.21%; Russia’ s, -0.47%; Bulgaria’s, -0.78%).  None of these countries hold a candle to the reigning world leader in population decline.  This decline has nothing to do with low birth rates, disease, or war.  Rather, it has everything to do with the shirts on people’s backs.

nomarianaislands

Source: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/islands_oceans_poles/nomarianaislands.jpg.  Courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, The University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

This is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), which sits in the western Pacific east of the Philippines and south of Japan.  Since 1978, it has been the ‘other’ commonwealthof the United States, a status the island group shares with Puerto Rico.  In the 2000 census, the population of the CNMI was counted as 69 221.  In 2008, the population had rise to an all-time high of 86 616 (July 2008 estimate). And yet, by the 2010 census just two years later, the population of the commonwealth was listed at just 53 883.  This year, the World Factbook lists the Northern Marianas’ population at a mere 46 050 (July 2011 estimate). In just three years, the country has lost a stunning 46.8% of its populace.  What happened in 2009 to cause half of the Northern Marianas to be emptied?

Another look at that 2000 census shows that of the 69 221 residents counted, 28 717 were foreign workers.  Specifically, most of these were garment workers, mostly from China, the Philippines, and Thailand.  Although the Marianas approved organisation as a US commonwealth in 1976 and gained that status two years later, many United States laws were not immediately made applicable, including laws regarding immigration and minimum wages. This was advantageous to Chinese clothing and garment makers, who were able to lure labourers to the islands with little in the way of red tape to work as contract labourers in factories for substandard wages while being able to market the items produced as ‘Made in the USA’ due to the CNMI’s status as a US possession.  In testimony before the US senate, it was stated that these workers, being paid less than half of standard US minimum wage, comprised a stunning 91% of the private CNMI workforce.  Life in these factories was nearly equivalent to slave labour, with tales of workers housed in barbed-wire shacks, subject to forced abortions to keep them working, and women and children were forced into Saipan’s lucrative sex tourism industry.

One of the reasons that these laws were able to persist in the CNMI for so long even as a US commonwealth was thanks to the infamous Washington lobbyist Jack AbramoffSince 1993, the CNMI had retained the Preston Gates law firm, where Abramoff was employed, to lobby the government to maintain the CNMI’s exemption from immigration and minimum wage laws.   Abramoff took on the CNMI government as a client in 1995, and for the next decade was able to use his influence with new numerous senators and representatives (most notably one-time House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay), even paying for vacations for DeLay and his staffers in the Marianas.  As House Republican Whip in 2000, DeLay stopped the House from even voting on a law fashioned by a fellow party member, senator and future Alaskan governor Frank Murkowski, that would extend US immigration and minimum-wage laws to the Marianas; the law had passed unanimously through the Senate.

After the end of the Abramoff scandal that took DeLay’s political career with it, a reform law was passed by the United States in May 2008 and in November 2009, the commonwealth turned control over immigration over to the US government much as other US territories have done (all but American Samoa; CNMI governor Benigno Fitial sued the US government in response claiming a violation of the original 1976 commonwealth covenant).  Part of this transition included phasing out the non-resident contract worker programme.  The effect was immediate: the factories closed; tourism declined; tens of thousands of workers returned home en masse.  Other non-garment industry working immigrants also saw their jobs go away when the money that supported them left.  For those who made a new life in the CNMI and put roots down with families and friends, many wonder whether they will be allowed to stay under the newly applicable US regulations if they are unable to find new work.

One can expect the population growth rate in the Northern Mariana Islands to flatten out over time as the non-garment worker population, including the indigenous Chamorro and Carolinian peoples, is less prone to relocate (the World Factbook already shows the population growth rate as back ‘up’ in the  -4% percent range compared to -22% in 2009).  What country, then, will take up the mantle of having the fastest shrinking population?  The only other country or dependent territory on Earth with a population growth rate smaller than -1% is another Pacific island group, the Cook Islands. (-3.0%, 2011 estimate).  Young people are prone to leaving the territory in search of higher education and wider economic opportunities in New Zealand, which is in free association with the Cooks.  So many people have left the Cook Islands over the year that nearly three times as many persons of Cook Island Maori descent (over 58 000) live in New Zealand than in all of the Cook Islands (around 19 000).

Further Reading

Central Intelligence Agency (2012).  The World Factbook.  Available at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/.  Accessed 4 January 2012.

CNN (2005).  The real scandal of Tom DeLay.  CNN Politics, 9 May 2005. Available at http://articles.cnn.com/2005-05-09/politics/real.delay_1_delay-staff-wage-saipan?_s=PM:POLITICS.  Accessed 5 January 2012.

Edsall, T.B. (2006).  Another Stumble for Ralph Reed’s Beleaguered Campaign.  Washington Post, 29 may 2006.  Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/28/AR2006052800964.html.  Accessed 5 January 2012.

Eugenio, H.V. (2010).  CNMI loses immigration control in 2009.  Saipan Tribune, 1 January 2010.  Available at http://www.saipantribune.com/newsstory.aspx?newsID=96195&cat;=1.  Accessed 5 January 2012.

Laguatan, T. (2011).  No Limitation: Thousands of Filipinos in Northern Marianas need legal help.  Inquirer: Global Nation, 3 November 2011.  Available at http://globalnation.inquirer.net/17003/thousands-of-filipinos-in-northern-marianas-need-legal-help.  Accessed 5 January 2012.

U.S. Census Bureau (2011).  U.S. Census Bureau Releases 2010 Census Population Counts for the Northern Mariana Islands.  24 August 2011.  Available at http://2010.census.gov/news/releases/operations/cb11-cn178.html.  Accessed 4 January 2012.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2011).  Transition to U.S. Immigration Law in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.  12 August 2011.  Available at http://www.dhs.gov/files/programs/gc_1225725411526.shtm.  Accessed 5 January 2012.

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One thought on “Population Collapse in the Northern Mariana Islands


  • That was a great read, thank you. I was curious when seeing the dramatic net migration rate on the CIA Factbook and this was a perfect explaination.

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