Gov. Eloy S. Inos wrote acting U.S. Labor Secretary Seth D. Harris yesterday to formally ask for a five-year extension on the federal immigration transition period that will expire on Dec. 31, 2014.
Without an extension of up to 2019, the CNMI could lose access to over 12,000 foreign workers it still needs to help run the tourism-based economy since most of these alien laborers do not qualify for conversion to an H1B status before deadline.
“The resident workforce pool still remains severely inadequate to fill all the jobs currently held by foreign workers,” Inos said in his two-page letter to Harris.
Although the date on the letter is “March 6,” the letter was sent only yesterday, press secretary Angel Demapan told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
The law that placed CNMI immigration under federal control, Public Law 110-229, requires the U.S. Labor secretary to consult with the CNMI governor and federal agencies in assessing the islands' current and anticipated labor needs to determine whether an extension of up to five years is necessary.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) wrote Harris on Feb. 14 to ask for a similar five-year extension of the transition period. Sablan also asked that a decision on the matter be made “ideally within the next six months from February, or by August.
“As governor of the CNMI, I am pleased to render my full support for Congressman Sablan's request and ask, too, that you grant this greatly needed extension,” Inos told Harris. “In so doing, you will be ensuring the avoidance of what would cause heavy damage to our economy and hurt the citizens and residents who live and work in this far-off island outpost of the United States.”
Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign and Federal Relations, said last night that the House and Senate will come up with a joint resolution supporting the governor and delegate's request for the extension.
“We are presenting a unified front to the U.S. government, for a better future of the CNMI,” Conner said.
The joint resolution, which Conner plans to pre-file before the next House session, will be sent to the U.S. Labor secretary as well.
Under U.S. Public Law 110-229, guest workers under the Commonwealth-only worker or CW program will be eliminated come Dec. 31, 2014.
Inos said this deadline presents grave concerns to the CNMI economy. He said it is “undoubtedly clear that the CNMI economy will still need foreign workers who may not necessarily be qualified to convert to an H1B status before the deadline.”
The governor added that the CNMI economy is also largely restrained in its ability to advance because of a great deal of uncertainty.
“Not knowing whether the extension of the transition period will be granted has created this climate of uncertainty within the business community. What is more concerning is that it is not only affecting existing business activity, but also potential investments in the CNMI,” Inos told Harris.
Skilled and professional foreign workers, mostly from the Philippines and China, account for some 54 percent of the workforce in the CNMI. Many of them have been working legally in the CNMI for more than five years, including nurses, accountants, engineers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, house workers, and hotel and restaurant employees, among other positions.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in 2012 that “the CNMI economy remains dependent on foreign workers.”
Even if the transition period is extended, CNMI employers would continue to be required to demonstrate the unavailability of qualified U.S. workers before they are allowed to hire foreign workers.
The Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organization in the CNMI with some 160 members, has also been pushing for an extension of the transition period, at a time when the tourism economy is starting to show signs of recovery with improved arrivals and hotel occupancy.
Even as Sablan is requesting for an extension of the CW program, he is also working with the Obama administration and U.S. Congress members to ensure that the CNMI is included in any national immigration reform legislation. The Obama White House and key lawmakers want to grant a pathway to citizenship to over 11 million undocumented aliens in the U.S. mainland.