The head of the ambitious Saipan casino project that wants to complete a $550-million, 14-story casino resort in Garapan by 2017 says they “can’t sleep” amid the ongoing contract worker crisis that is expected to uproot families and longtime workers after the CNMI breached the federal cap of the number of workers allowed to work in the NMI this fiscal year.
Best Sunshine International, Ltd. CEO Mark Brown said for their Grand Mariana Casino Resort, “they want to go between 2,500 and 3,300 employees.” They have 1,200 employees now, he said, and half of them are contract workers and the other local. BSI currently operates a temporary casino in the T-Galleria.
“This is affecting us greatly,” Brown told Saipan Tribune in an interview yesterday. “We have issues where people by the time their visa was granted and by the time they got to the island and went to work—they’ve only been here two months—and they have to leave next week.”
“That’s the scary part. They’ve only been here two months. Even though the process took that long,” he added. Contract worker permits, the avenue for which the CNMI supplies most of its workforce, are approved and administered by the federal government and expire in one year.
Brown and other casino officials met with the local administration and acting governor Victor Hocog yesterday. Brown said they went over the issue not just for the casino but for “what the whole island is doing with this case,” and are “finding out the details.”
“Are we concerned? Absolutely. We can’t sleep now,” he told Saipan Tribune before he left the Office of the Governor building yesterday.
Government officials heavily involved with pressing the federal government on the impacts or options the CNMI faces with a worker cap breached were bleak on the outlook, when Saipan Tribune spoke with them yesterday.
In announcing that the 12,999 cap was reached last Saturday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it would reject applications received after a close-off May 5 date, including those for extensions of stay for current contract workers.
And that if an extension petition was rejected, beneficiaries listed on that petition would not be permitted to work beyond the previous permit, and that affected and petitioned family members, must depart the CNMI within 10 days after the their permit expired, with no hint of extension or grace period offered.
Officials close to the issue question what this means for a growing CNMI economy that posted a 10-percent revenue growth from last year, largely attributed to various revenues collected from a burgeoning gaming industry and recovering tourism industry.
Officials fear what will happen when permits approved for 2016 come off the books with these workers unable to stay.
They say that permits that expire in June or July this year—for the Saipan casino for example, which started operations last summer—would have to apply under the 2017 CW cap, leave the CNMI, and hope that they are allowed to come back to work in six months.
All this with untold affects on a growing economy, and also depending on if workers can return under a worker cap that federal government shrinks annually and with businesses openly competing for cap space.
While many attribute the current economic growth to the Saipan casino, they, and other new developers, have also taken large chunk of the CW share of the CW quota, mostly for new workers in construction.
Best Sunshine reportedly has taken up between 500 to 2,000 of the CW bulk, Saipan Tribune learned, with other projects like Honest Profit International, which is building a resort in San Antonio, taking another 500 for construction workers.
In total, of the 12,999 quota, about 5,500 of the next fiscal year’s contract worker visas is expected to be for construction workers.
Torres officials indicated yesterday that they were adamant, in their meeting with the casino yesterday, that Best Sunshine has their subcontractor for construction switch over to the H-visa class, which the CNMI sees no annual limit for. However, that construction company has apparently taken a preference for Chinese workers, Saipan Tribune gathered, and China is not a treaty country under the H-visa program.
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-Saipan), and the private sector have insisted that construction companies switch over to the H-visa, a warning that apparently has not been listened to and risks seeing longtime workers and their families uprooted and outbid for permit space by new developers, with no leeway from the federal government hinted at yet.
Private sector leaders met with Torres and delegate Sablan officials on Monday to forward their concerns through them to USCIS. Queries have been sent and officials have discussed writing formal letters to USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez or work back channels to seek resolutions, but no glimmer of light or solid official response has been received by officials close to the issue so far, Saipan Tribune gathered yesterday.
Still, some officials are hopeful that the USCIS can be creative administratively, and find an option that won’t require an act of U.S. Congress to find some room for flexibility within those parameters between now and Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, for affected workers and families, Saipan Tribune gathered yesterday.