Imperialist Immigration Reform

22 Pages Posted: 4 Nov 2022 Last revised: 1 Nov 2023

See all articles by Cori Alonso-Yoder

Cori Alonso-Yoder

George Washington University - Law School

Date Written: April 3, 2023


For decades one of the most challenging domestic policy matters has been the passage of immigration reform. Dogged by controversial notions of what makes for a desirable immigrant and debates about enforcement and amnesty, elected officials have largely given up on achieving comprehensive bipartisan immigration solutions. The lack of federal action has led to an outdated and impractical legal framework with state and local lawmakers unable to step into the breach. Well over one hundred years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court firmly stated that the U.S. immigration system is within the sole constitutional authority of the federal government to regulate.

Yet there is one place within the United States that has embraced an alternative to this reality. Though it has been under the control of the federal government for nearly eighty years, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) remains exempt from federal immigration law. As a territory of the United States, the CNMI has controlled its own system of immigration with little federal interference. At the time of this writing, Congress has approved a transition period further delaying the application of federal immigration law in the CNMI until 2029. This extension was made by possible through bipartisan legislation signed into law by President Trump in 2018. Not only did Trump sign legislation giving continued federal employment authorization to the CNMI’s otherwise undocumented workers, in 2019 Trump also approved a bill to give permanent resident status to over one thousand individuals facing deportation from the CNMI. Both actions fly in the face of Trump’s domestic immigration policy.

This essay argues that this imperialist immigration reform reveals as much about what is not happening in the rest of the United States as it does about immigration policy in the CNMI. Numerous scholars have pointed to the racist roots of U.S. immigration policy typified by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. I suggest that the parallel system of immigration in the CNMI is the exception that proves the rule of racism in U.S. immigration law. The population of the CNMI is overwhelmingly Asian and Pacific Islander with a white population totaling less than two percent. By looking at demographics, history, and constitutional law, including the law governing U.S. territories in the Insular Cases, I argue that the immigration policy of the CNMI demonstrates the federal government’s alternative approach when protection of “white spaces” is taken out of the legislative equation.

Gi talo’ halom tasi In the middle of the ocean
Nai gaige tano’-hu. Is where my land is
Ayun ai sempre hu That is where I
Soda melago’-hu… Will find what I’m searching for…
(Chamorro version) (English version)

- CNMI National Anthem

Keywords: immigration, law of the territories, critical race theory

Suggested Citation

Alonso-Yoder, Cori, Imperialist Immigration Reform (April 3, 2023). 91 Fordham L. Rev. 1623 (2023)., Available at SSRN: or

Cori Alonso-Yoder (Contact Author)

George Washington University - Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States

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