Dozens of small-to-medium foreign investors that have been operating grocery stores, wholesale firms, laundry shops, car rentals, apartment rentals, small hotels, tire shops and beauty parlors in the CNMI for years and decades are facing loss of immigration status after Dec. 31, 2014. They said they feel “abandoned” by the CNMI government, which is now trying to lure “new” foreign investors that have at least $500,000 to spare in exchange for U.S. lawful permanent residency or “green card” under the EB-5 program.
“We are the ones needing immigration status to continue to do business in the CNMI after 2014, after investing a lot of money in the CNMI. Once our E2-C status expires, what will happen to us?” said Ting Jian Tang, owner of Kevin's Department Store and Kevin's Construction, and president of the 40-strong Chinese Investors Association.
Press secretary Angel Demapan, when asked for comment, said the Fitial administration “recognizes the investments thus far by existing businesses.”
“However, the administration is also cognizant that the EB5 incentive was geared toward investors who could make a capital investment of at least $500,000 and continuously employ at least 10 workers in the first two years,” Demapan told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
Demapan said that it was the U.S. Congress and not the CNMI Legislature that created the EB-5 in 1990 to stimulate the U.S. economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors.
Under a pilot immigration program first enacted in 1992 and regularly reauthorized since, certain EB-5 visas also are set aside for investors in Regional Centers designated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services based on proposals for promoting economic growth, Demapan said.
USCIS approved the first EB-5 Regional Center in the CNMI-that of Triple J's Marianas EB-5 Regional Center LLC. There are two other applicants in the CNMI waiting to get approval from USCIS.
James Han, owner of QQ Car Rental and QQ Tour and Travel, said all they ask is for the CNMI government to request the U.S. government to grant a stable immigration status to existing long-term foreign investors in the Commonwealth without requiring them to put up new businesses and invest another $500,000 each.
“We feel abandoned by the CNMI government. .We are already here. Protect us and take care of us. We are not interested in going to the U.S. [mainland]. We want a legal status to remain in the CNMI after 2014, and be able to enter and exit the CNMI freely if we need to, for vacation or business,” he said.
Han said he has already invested some $1 million in the CNMI since he opened his businesses.
Han and Tang were just among the dozens of Chinese business owners gathered at the Giovanni's Restaurant at Hyatt Regency on Saipan Friday to collectively air their concerns not only about the Fitial administration's recent announcement of an EB-5 regional center in the CNMI but their immigration status in general. Many of those in attendance are not members of any Chinese association in the CNMI.
They said small-to-medium businesses like them are not always represented in discussions with policymakers about CNMI immigration.
Many in the crowd at Friday's gathering said that, unlike the transitional Commonwealth-only worker program that can be extended beyond 2014, the transitional E2-C investor program that covers most long-term businesses in the CNMI cannot be extended.
They also said that Chinese investors do not qualify in the regular E2 investor program because China is not a signatory country.
“And if we want to apply for the EB-5 program, we have to be 'new' business, meaning we have to invest new $500,000. But we already invested so much in the CNMI,” Han added.
The foreign investors said that if most or all of them are forced to leave the CNMI after 2014-which they hope won't happen-hundreds will lose their jobs in the CNMI, many residents will lose income from land leases, and the local economy will suffer.
Han also pointed out that it seems “Governor Fitial is always against granting improved immigration status to long-term foreigners in the CNMI.”
“We also learned from the CNMI that Kilili [Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP)] is introducing bill. That's still a long shot,” he added.
Demapan said any proposal to the federal government as to how current E2C holders will be able to stay in the CNMI beyond 2014 is “something that needs to be reviewed and discussed with the stakeholders.”
Wang “Stacy” Lan Lan, president of LW Corp., which owns Twins Supermarket, Garapan Happy Market, Everclean Laundry and LW Wholesale, said it is “frustrating” that the CNMI government “is not protecting existing investors.” She said they have already invested some $2 million throughout the years.
She said how the CNMI government treats its existing foreign investors will be an eye-opener to those investors planning to do business in the CNMI for the first time.
“We have been supporting the economy. We have some 40 employees. We pay taxes. We pay CUC [Commonwealth Utilities Corp.]. My business paid CUC $600,000 for CUC alone in 2012, our biggest annual billing. And we have U.S. citizen kids,” she said.
Wang said Chinese businesses “welcome” EB-5 investors “because they will stimulate the economy.”
“But the CNMI government is not protecting existing investors. It's frustrating. It will show future investors what kind of treatment the CNMI gives its longtime investors,” she added.
Just like many of the gathered businesses, they said they do not have any intention of leaving the CNMI should they get a stable immigration status that will allow them to continue to do business on the islands.
Tang said it would be “painful” if Chinese businesses do not get a status beyond 2014.
“We will be forced to close our businesses. If they give us a chance to change our status, we will stay. Even if the economy is bad, we have stayed. We helped bring prosperity. We do not want to fight with anybody, like the CNMI government. But please take care of us, help us,” he added.
Han also said that with all these uncertainties about investors' status, they are “holding off” on investing more in the CNMI.
“We have plans to expand but because of uncertainties, we are holding off on these plans,” he said.
Ao Zhang, owner of Do Re Mi Music School and has been a businessman in the CNMI since 1992, said he hopes there will be help from the CNMI government.
Another Chinese businesswoman said existing foreign investors have been following the laws, paying taxes, hiring residents “but we are not being protected.”
“Saipan is a nice place. We want to continue to stay here, help the CNMI. But please don't forget about us. This is also our home,” she said.
Some businessmen said at times they feel the CNMI government and elected officials are not thinking about the existing investors' situation “because we are not voters.”
These investors said that, while they would like to seek an audience with Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, they do not want to be interfering in the ongoing impeachment proceedings against the governor. They said they are hoping the administration will know about their sentiments through the media.
Recently, the governor said USCIS' approval of the first EB-5 Regional Center in the CNMI, a program where foreign nationals may invest in the center to obtain lawful permanent residency in the United States or “green cards,” is going to “revolutionize the CNMI economy.”
Fitial said there are potential investors, mostly from China, who have been waiting for this opportunity to come to the CNMI to invest. At the same time, the governor said, these potential investors are looking for U.S. citizenship.
“This [investment visa program] is a route to U.S. citizenship,” Fitial said.
Chinese investors who have been in the CNMI for years and decades said they hope the governor will no longer oppose any proposal from the U.S. government or anyone to grant a status to long-term foreign investors and workers in the CNMI beyond 2014.