Most of the over 11,000 foreign workers being applied a Commonwealth-only worker permit are not likely to qualify for nonimmigrant or immigrant visa classifications available under the Immigration and Nationality Act such as an H1B when the federalization transition period ends on Dec. 31, 2014, leaving the CNMI economy in limbo unless parties affected know this early which of the limited options will be pursued to avoid a mass exit of legal foreign workers and foreign investments depending on them.
Only a few options are available at this time, and each of them is drawing different views.
The options include, but are not limited to, the extension of the transition period, applying for and being granted INA visas for as many foreign workers qualified as possible, a grant of improved immigration status such as permanent residency or pathway to U.S. citizenship to long-term legal foreign workers, or returning to the CNMI government the control of local immigration.
Without these options, the estimated over 10,000 foreign workers who do not qualify for any INA visa today probably won't qualify for the same visas two years from now will have to leave the CNMI.
Press secretary Angel Demapan said yesterday the Fitial administration stands by its position in favor of extending the transition period “because we recognize that the Commonwealth has yet to establish a fully viable resident workforce.”
This means most foreign workers who are not qualified for any INA visa could still be allowed to have CW permits at least five years after 2014 or until 2019.
“The governor has made this known since last year. In fact, even Delegate Kilili (Sablan) is backing the extension of the transition period,” Demapan told Saipan Tribune.
He said from the onset of federalization, the Fitial administration encouraged foreign workers to do the right thing and always prepare for the least favorable scenario.
“Today, the administration reiterates that stance. Do not be fooled by the rallies, motorcades, and demonstrations. They only lead to donations that will enrich the few people making promises that will never happen. It is more prudent for foreign workers to ensure that they have money saved for when it is time to return home or move elsewhere,” Demapan said.
The CNMI relies heavily on foreign workers for many jobs, from engineers, architects, teachers, nurses, certified public accountants, waiters, hotel employees, farmers, housemaids, technicians, repairmen, and construction workers, among other things.
'Limit the suffering'
Wendy Doromal, a Florida-based human rights activist and a former Rota teacher, said instead of trying to haphazardly run a CNMI-only federal immigration program to regulate foreign workers-most of whom have lived and worked in the CNMI for many years and decades-“why not cut the expenses and eliminate the suffering by granting permanent residency to the legal, long-term foreign workers?”
“There is absolutely no reason to extend the transition period after 2014. Why continue an expensive and unorganized CNMI-only guest worker program that represents just another bureaucratic nightmare for the workers? Give them permanent residency now and end the need to continue the program,” Doromal told Saipan Tribune.
Reynaldo Gozon, 55, said if the extension of the transition period is the most viable option for most foreign workers like him, then he would have no qualms about it.
“I don't qualify for H visa now, and I don't think I will qualify either in two years' time. Extension is good, but it would be better if the federal government just grants us improved status,” said Gozon, who came to Saipan in 1997 to work as a heavy equipment operator. He now works as a ground maintenance employee.
The father of three said as long as his employer needs his service, he would stay put. He is now waiting for the result of the CW application filed by his employer on his behalf.
'No way to replace foreign workers soon'
Richard Pierce, executive director of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday “it would take greater critical mass, and therefore be less attainable, to pass federal legislation for any change in status for those CW-1 visa holders allowing them to stay and work in the CNMI after 2014, than to simply extend the transition period another five, or 10, years as currently allowed under P.L. 110-229.”
Pierce said the U.S. Department of Labor, in his opinion, will do this.
“It's simply easier to follow the law than change it. Make no mistake about it. There's no way to replace those eventual 12,000 CW-1 holders with qualified U.S. workers in the CNMI. Certainly not when this economy begins to improve, which it will,” he said.
Precilla Villafuerte, 39, said she would like to continue working on Saipan for her daughter who was born here, and to help her family back in the Philippines.
“It would be a big help if they extend the transition. If they want to improve our status, then I'm thankful. But we always have to be prepared,” she said.
Villafuerte came to Saipan in 1992 to work as a sewer in a garment factory. When the garment industry pulled out, she started working as a housemaid. She's also now waiting for the result of the CW petitioned filed on her behalf.
She said it would be hard to replace all foreign workers who are legally working in the CNMI right now, in two years' time.
Doromal said she's disappointed with the way the federal government has handled the transition from CNMI immigration to the federal system.
“The delays and slow processing of the CW permits have created extreme hardship for the foreign workers, their families and employers,” she said.
For example, three months after the deadline for employers to petition foreign workers for CW permits, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has processed only about 1,000 CW applications of the estimated 5,000 petitions filed covering 11, 200 foreign workers.
Doromal said this demonstrates that the Department of Homeland Security did not plan properly to ensure a smooth and orderly transition.
“Obviously, there are not enough employees assigned to process the applications. It certainly appears that the CNMI's guest worker program is not a priority with DHS. How many more months (or years) will it take for the remaining applications to be processed? Where is the congressional oversight?” she said.
Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan), for his part, said the CNMI should be given back control of its own immigration if the federal government cannot do its job as mandated by PL 110-229, the law that placed CNMI immigration under federal control.
He cited as an example the U.S. immigration court. He said the judicial process “I believe does not recognize expediency the way the governor thinks it should by his prior comments. The constitution says a person shall be given due process and a right to a speedy trial.”
Doromal, meanwhile, said as long as members of U.S. Congress continue to defer to the position of the CNMI delegate regarding island concerns, “we should not expect the U.S. Congress to extend permanent residency to the foreign contract workers.”
“As long as there are members of the Hispanic and Asian Pacific American Caucuses-the so-called 'immigration champions'-supporting permanent residency for 11 million undocumented aliens and an inferior status, one step above slavery for only about ¼ of the 11,000 legal foreign workers, then the chance of permanent residency for the CNMI's foreign workers looks extremely bleak. If the members of Congress who claim to be pro-immigrant cannot be trusted to do right by the CNMI foreign workers, then who can?” she said.
Rene Reyes, founding president of the Marianas Advocates for Humanitarian Affairs Ltd. or Mahal, said employers can apply for H visas for their employees but there's no guarantee they will be approved because of the nature of their jobs.
He said he hopes the U.S. Congress will finally act on the U.S. Department of the Interior's recommendations to grant improved status to long-term foreign workers in the CNMI.
“It's not being selfish if foreign workers wish to have improved status. They still want to continue to contribute to the local economy,” he said.
Doromal said CNMI leaders do not view the foreign workers, even those who have lived in the CNMI for decades -as equal community members or as future citizens.
“It is obvious by comments from the governor and legislators, and from Sablan's H.R. 1466 that there is no leader in the CNMI who would offer any legitimate, just and democratic status to the foreign workers. The only status on the table is unacceptable because it does not include all of the legal, long-term foreign workers, would maintain their disenfranchisement and chains them to the CNMI,” she said.
She said she does not recommend that any foreign worker stay in the CNMI under the current political and economic conditions if they have an opportunity to leave.
“I do not support a system that offers no job security, no assurance of being paid or of recovering wages that employers have stolen; and provides no possibility upgraded status or pathway to citizenship for the majority of the legal, long-term workers. It is un-American and undemocratic,” she said.
Doromal added that there is no incentive for foreign workers to stay in a place “where the only public hospital is nearly bankrupt, the dental clinics have closed, public schools are rationing power or having it cut, the CUC is barely able to pay for fuel to run the generators, the crime rate has skyrocketed and unscrupulous employers continue to steal wages without suffering any consequences for their crimes.”
“Without a job that would qualify a foreign worker for a visa that would eventually provide a pathway to citizenship, I am not sure the suffering and conditions are worth staying to see if things will change,” she said.
Doromal said while she will continue to advocate for justice and permanent residency for the legal, long-term foreign workers, “it would be irresponsible for me to advise them to remain in a place where their wellbeing is at risk; where the wellbeing of their children and family members is at risk.”
“We have to hope that the upcoming elections will result in changes that will result in justice finally being realized for the foreign workers and their families,” she said.
PL 110-229, signed into law on May 8, 2008, extended most provisions of the INA to the CNMI for the first time. There is a transitional period ending in 2014.
The transitional CW rule allows employers in the CNMI to sponsor nonimmigrant workers who otherwise would be ineligible to work under the INA and gives foreign workers until Dec. 31, 2014 to determine an appropriate long-term immigration status for themselves and their families.