The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced yesterday a limit of 14,000 non-immigrants under the transitional CNMI-only worker program for fiscal year 2014 starting on Oct. 1, a mere 6.66-percent cut from the current 15,000 cap.
This gives wiggle room for potential growth in the tourism-based economy and increased demand for qualified workers that the current U.S. labor pool still cannot provide at this time.
The number of foreign workers under the CW program will drastically drop to zero when the CW program ends on Dec. 31, 2014, which could spell disaster for a recovering CNMI economy.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) separately welcomed yesterday the 14,000 cap but, at the same time, hope for a favorable response from the U.S. Labor secretary on their request to extend CW program by five years—up to 2019.
Without such an extension, the CNMI loses immediate access to some 12,000 foreign workers after 2014.
“Based on the current rate of development and the need for workers, we feel that 14,000 might be adequate,” the governor told Saipan Tribune in an interview at Coral Ocean Point Resort Club’s renovation groundbreaking yesterday.
DHS’ new cap is close enough to what Inos earlier asked for—about 14,100—to accommodate the increased need for workers now that the CNMI economy is recovering buoyed by record number tourist arrivals.
“While we appreciate having the number [14,000] at this time, we’re still concerned about whether or not this pool of CW workers would still be available in 2014; hence the need for an extension. That’s another hurdle. We’re seeking some guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor as to some final decision. Hopefully a favorable one that will allow us to basically utilize the 14,000 that we have either next year or the year following that,” Inos added.
Training, hiring US workers
Inos said the CNMI won’t be relying only on foreign workers, pointing out that his administration has formed a task force that will look at the manpower needs of the hotel industry “and try to find ways to get local workers employed.”
Inos said that by having as much U.S. workers trained and employed, the CNMI would not “sing this song again” years from now.
“We have to prepare for that [end of a possible five-year extension]. At least that’s one of the criticisms about this extension—that it will just never allow us to be ready for this thing but we want to press the issue and we want to see a gradual decrease in the number of CW workers [and] and a gradual increase in local workforce in those same position and industry,” the governor said.
Sablan, in a separate statement yesterday, said he was satisfied with the number.
“This cut will increase the pressure to give jobs to qualified U.S. workers, which is our long-term goal. Businesses will have to do more to recruit local workers. And our government and educational system will have to do more to train local workers for jobs in the Northern Mariana Islands economy. At the same time, USCIS is continuing to provide some room for economic growth,” the delegate said.
USCIS stands for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within DHS that handles immigration benefits.
DHS published the notice about the fiscal year 2014 cap for CW workers in the Sept. 25 edition of the Federal Register.
A pre-publication version of the notice is available for viewing online at https://s3.amazonaws.com/public-inspection.federalregister.gov/2013-23289.pdf.
Under the CW-1 program, employers in the CNMI can apply for temporary permission to employ foreign nationals who are ineligible for any existing employment-based nonimmigrant category under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
The CW program is in effect until Dec. 31, 2014, during which time the CNMI’s nonresident worker program is being transitioned to the U.S. federal immigration system.
This transition period was established by the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, which extended, for the first time, most provisions of U.S. immigration law to the CNMI.
The annual CNRA-required reduction in CW-1 workers will eliminate the CW nonimmigrant classification by the end of the transition period.
DHS said its announcement does not affect the status of current CW-1 workers unless their employer files for an extension of their current authorized period of stay or they seek to change CW-1 employer.
Approved petitions that request a work-start date in fiscal year 2014—between Oct. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2014—will count toward the 14,000 limit.
The numerical limit applies only to CW-1 principals. It does not directly affect persons currently holding CW-2 status, which is for spouses and minor children of CW-1 non-immigrants.
“However, CW-2 nonimmigrants may be indirectly affected because their status depends upon that of the principal CW-1,” DHS said.
A numerical limit of 15,000 CW-1s was set for fiscal year 2013.
As of Aug. 13, 2013, employers in the CNMI filed petitions for at least 7,323 transitional workers.
Echoing the governor’s concerns, Sablan said he remains concerned about striking the right balance that puts local workers in jobs and still allows the economy to grow.
He said for that reason, he has written to USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas, asking for an update on efforts the agency announced last year to step up investigations of employers who are alleged to be hiring CW workers while turning away U.S. workers who are qualified for jobs.
“Specifically, I would like to know the number of complaints that have been received, the number of complaints investigated, the number of employers found at fault, and what action may have been taken against them,” Sablan wrote.
The delegate also wants an evaluation of the effectiveness of these current measures and assessment of additional steps that may be needed to ensure compliance among employers in the CNMI.
Sablan has also included a provision in his Territorial Omnibus Act, H.R. 2200, that will require stricter accountability and performance reports to Congress on the use of the $150 fee that employers pay for each CW permit issued.
The money is given back to the CNMI government, but Sablan said there is no accounting of whether the funds are being used effectively.
“So far, the Commonwealth has received well over $1 million to help train local workers for jobs in our economy. I think it is reasonable for Congress to ask how many U.S. workers found jobs as a result of that substantial expenditure. Twenty? Thirty? Fifty?” he said.
Sablan said if the money is not being used effectively, “we need to know, so we can make sure we are helping local workers get jobs.”
The delegate added that the notice of the decision to set the cap at 14,000 for 2014 takes note of the possibility that the transition period may be extended.
“To date, the Department of Labor has not announced a decision on the extension of the program. However, [the Department of Homeland Security] must prepare for both the end of the transitional worker program and for an extension of the transitional worker program; a drastic reduction [in the number of CW permits] would not account for the possibility of an extension,” he said.
Sablan met last week with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy, Dr. James H. Moore, to be briefed on the decision on extending the transition period.
Moore is responsible for the team analyzing the CNMI labor force and economy and for making a recommendation on the extension to the Secretary of Labor, who makes the final decision.