What's supposed to be a few days' processing of a Commonwealth-only worker visa after an application interview at the U.S. Embassy in Manila took at least three weeks for J. Ariel L. Mariano, only the second foreign worker in the CNMI to apply for a CW visa in the Philippines.
It is not known whether the first person to apply for a CW visa in Manila got his CW visa just like Mariano had.
But the whole CW visa application process took a month, if one is to count from the date Mariano tried to make an online and phone-in schedule for an interview at the embassy in Manila on Feb. 6, four days after arriving there for a deposition related to a civil action filed in the CNMI.
Mariano is a senior paralegal officer at L&T Group of Companies where he has worked for almost 19 years.
He had his actual interview with a U.S. consul on Feb. 15, and picked up his passport with the CW visa in it on March 7.
Throughout that time, he had been following up online and on the phone. He also sought help from the U.S. Embassy in Manila and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“That's a total of 21 visa processing day by the embassy, from the interview on Feb. 15 and the day I picked up my passport on March 7,” Mariano told Saipan Tribune on Saturday.
Mariano said despite the discomfort of going through a lengthy process, he's thankful that it all worked out in the end.
He said he understands that because the CW category is a new one, it will take time to implement the system in a speedy and efficient manner.
The CW visa category was created pursuant to U.S. Public Law 110-229 signed in May 2008, which placed CNMI immigration under federal control effective Nov. 28, 2009. The regulations were published only in September 2011 for a number of reasons.
“Hopefully, the State Department, and USCIS, can improve the system as time goes on,” Mariano added.
His advice to those who will apply for a CW visa is to “plan ahead” and “be prepared” for anything that could happen along the way.
“If one is not prepared financially, for example, it will create a lot of problems. If your employer is not aware of the process and the reasons why you can't go back to the CNMI right away, that will also be a problem because your job may be in jeopardy,” he said.
Mariano said because he was only the second person to apply for a CW visa in Manila, he felt as though he's part of an experiment on how the new process needs to be.
Foreign workers in the CNMI who wish to re-enter the Commonwealth after a vacation in a non-U.S. area, for example, need to secure a CW visa at a U.S. embassy.
A CW visa is solely for people who have been approved a CW status and will be valid until Dec. 31, 2014, when the transition to federal immigration system period ends.
But each CW-1 visa has to be renewed every year and only until 2014, unless the transition period is extended.
The transitional visa is “valid only for entrance into the CNMI.”
“Visa holders cannot use these visas to travel to or work anywhere else in the United States. However, Filipino transitional workers will be allowed to transit through Guam to the CNMI on their visa,” the U.S. Embassy in Manila said on its website.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila is so far the only one among Asian countries that is now providing application services for CW-1 and CW-2 visa applications for a fee of $150 each.
Mariano shared the difficulties he faced while applying for a CW visa in February, although since then, some improvements and changes have been made to make the application process easier and faster.
He said the problem areas covered the operations of third-party service providers on fee payment and phone-in scheduling of interview, besides the extended period to issue the CW visa.
At the time of his application, he said the bank teller at the Bank of the Philippine Islands required presentation of original passport. The payment was also not immediately processed because a CW visa category was not yet in the bank's account system.
By mid-March, however, some BPI branches in Manila started accepting payments with only scanned copies of passport.
Also at the time of his CW visa application, there was still no CW visa in the selection for online and phone-in schedule reservation.
A few weeks later, the U.S. Embassy in Manila's website posted a special section on the CW visa titled “Saipan-CNMI visa” under Nonimmigrant Visas.
Mariano said he emailed the U.S. Embassy in Manila for direction to schedule his appointment on Feb. 6. Three days later, he received a call informing him that he can now make a schedule by phone.
He said he was interviewed by a U.S. consul on Feb. 15.
Mariano said after the interview, the consul explained to him that there is no problem with his CW visa application and supporting documents.
However, a so-called 221(g) letter from the U.S. Embassy had to be issued because the CW visa is a new category that requires further administrative processing.
“Your application requires further administrative processing. We shall contact you as soon as the administrative processing is completed. We regret that we are unable to provide you with any guidance as to how long this will take,” the Embassy's 221(g) letter to Mariano stated.
Mariano's employer communicated with USCIS, which said that the process should be smoothing out, although this does not mean all CW visa applicants will only take the minimum time to be processed and issued the visas.
Information about the CW visa application is available at the U.S. Embassy's website at http://manila.usembassy.gov/cnmi-visas.html.
While the availability of a CW visa application service at the U.S. Embassy in Manila is welcome relief for those wanting to go on vacation or need to go back home for emergency reasons, the number of those planning to apply for CW visa seems to be low, said leaders of the Filipino community in the CNMI.
Rene Reyes, founding president of the Marianas Advocates for Humanitarian Affairs Ltd. or Mahal, and United Filipino Organization president Bong Malasarte separately said the main reasons why only a few Filipinos are planning to apply for a CW visa is the uncertainty related to federalization of CNMI immigration and financial hardships.