Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Douglas Brennan formally asked U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday to help convince the U.S. Department of Labor to extend by five years the federal immigration transition period in the CNMI, even as close to 12,000 foreign workers are still needed by private sector employers to help run the tourism-based economy.
The transition period ends on Dec. 31, 2014.
Under the U.S. law that placed CNMI immigration under federal control, the foreign worker population should be zeroed out when the transition period ends.
The same law also provides that the U.S. Secretary of Labor will assess the CNMI’s current and anticipated labor needs and determine whether an extension of up to five years is necessary to ensure an adequate number of workers will be available for businesses in the CNMI.
Brennan said the Chamber views the additional transition period as “absolutely necessary to prevent a collapse of our CNMI economy.”
Gov. Benigno R. Fitial also wants an extension of the transition period beyond 2014.
It's not immediately known whether Fitial, who is currently in Washington, D.C. for a host of meetings, will be meeting with Napolitano or any DHS or U.S. Labor official to formally ask for an extension of the transition period.
Hundreds of CNMI employers have petitioned close to 12,000 foreign workers for a transitional Commonwealth-only worker permit.
Most of them have yet to be granted a CW-1 permit by DHS' U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
'Not enough time'
Brennan said the initial five-year transition period, where 11,737 CW-1 visa applications have been received by USCIS for temporary foreign national employment within the CNMI only, “has been demonstrated as simply not enough time to phase out those 11,737 CW-1 visa foreign national employees by replacing them with U.S. citizens and/or residents by December 2014.”
“There simply are not enough eligible, trained, and qualified U.S. residents available in the CNMI to replace those CW-1 visa holders by the end of 2014,” Brennan told Napolitano.
The Saipan Chamber of Commerce is the largest business organizations in the CNMI with some 150 members.
“First, the [Chamber] would formally request that DHS voice its acquired knowledge with the U.S. Department of Labor, from its implementation of the provision establishing the CW-1 transitional period visa program in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, in convincing U.S. DOL that an additional transition period of five years be immediately implemented,” Brennan said at the beginning of his two-page letter.
Brennan, who is also the general manager of Microl Corp. and secretary of the Commonwealth Auto Dealers Association, said the CNMI tourism industry cannot survive without available and qualified human resources, and the islands have not totally adjusted to a consumer base decimated by the elimination of the garment industry three years ago.
The CNMI population has dropped 25 percent since 2005.
Brennan also said regardless of USCIS-issued H visas and other professional employment visas issued in the CNMI in the future, the CW-1 visa category established by the Consolidated Natural Resources Act for use within the established transitional period ending December 2014 “cannot justifiably be ended until there are people to replace the issued CW-1 visas.”
Two worker groups in the CNMI-United Workers Movement NMI and Dekada Movement-have not decided yet whether to support or not the request to have the transition period extended to 2019.
But Rene Reyes, founding president of the Marianas Advocates for Humanitarian Affairs Ltd., said he personally prefers no extension.
“I believe not extending the transition period after 2014 would force the U.S. government to give a permit much better than CW-1 or an improved immigration status to legal foreign workers in the CNMI. But I am also mindful of guest workers' situation if and when their CW-1 permit is not renewed by their current employers after 2014,” Reyes told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
He said a possible compromise would be to extend the transition period by only three years instead of five “and use that three years as a study period as to what improved status could be given to legal foreign workers.”
Rabby Syed, president of United Workers Movement-NMI, said while their group has yet to take a position on the issue, they remain consistent in their quest for improved immigration status and a pathway to U.S. citizenship for long-term nonresident workers in the CNMI.