HAGATNA, Guam—Guam Gov. Lourdes “Lou” A. Leon Guerrero has officially assigned former Guam governor Carl T.C. Gutierrez (1995-2003) to spearhead her administration’s efforts to add the Philippines to the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program and to reopen Guam’s labor pipeline to Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) for hire on civilian construction projects and for other business purposes.
Leon Guerrero appointed Gutierrez as her chief advisor on Economic Development, National and International Affairs (Guam EDNIA) in January 2019.
Solving Guam’s two main visa challenges with the Philippines has remained his top priority since shortly after stepping into office. Earlier this month Gutierrez enlisted the endorsements of Philippine Sen. Manny Pacquiao and Congressman Rufus Bautista Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro City, also of the Philippines, for Guam’s campaign to add the Philippines to the Visa Waiver Program.
On Sept. 16, 2019, Gov. Leon Guerrero signed Executive Order No. 2019-22, which orders the Chief Advisor for Guam EDNIA to “research and develop a strategy to assist in the inclusion of the Philippines as an eligible country to the H-2A and H-2B Nonimmigrant Worker Program and as a member country of the Guam-CNMI [Visa] Waiver Program.”
“I am honored that Gov. Leon Guerrero recognizes, appreciates, and supports the relentless work EDNIA has been doing with the backing of her office as well as the Guam Economic Development Authority, Guam Department of Labor, and Guam Visitors Bureau,” Gutierrez said.
“And I am eternally grateful to the Duterte Administration and its highly capable cabinet officials for teaming with me to smooth the way for more efficient labor and visitation policies that will (a) help bolster lucrative remittances from Guam to the Philippines, (b) help the U.S. make Duty Station Guam as comfortable as possible for our men and women in uniform while hardening our assets and accomplishing our nation’s strategic geopolitical objectives, and (c) help improve standards of living and the quality of life of Guam’s people,” Gutierrez added.
“Furthermore, Guam must retool, retrench, and rebuild to regain its edge within the highly competitive Asia-Pacific visitor industry.”
A market ready for full bloom
Visitors from the Philippines account for about 20,000 of inbound travelers to Guam each year. But despite the substantial growth of the republic’s middle class, despite their relatively high per capita spending rates while visiting Guam, and despite their excitement to visit countless kababayans living in Guam, Philippine citizens are still required to obtain a visa before traveling to the U.S. territory. This visa requirement, coupled with restrictions on Filipino workers entering Guam, is perceived as a substantial barrier to visitor industry growth on an island that has been unable to get much past the 1.4 million visitor record it achieved in 1997. It finally tallied 1.55 million annual visitors in 2018.
Ready access to qualified labor and more borderless travel among regional outbound visitor markets would help build and fill sorely needed hotel rooms on Guam. And due to labor security restrictions now blanketing U.S. states and territories, visa-only vacationing isn’t the only federal policy preventing many Filipinos from entering U.S. Guam.
The federal clampdown
After decades of allowing Guam contractors to hire Filipino temporary workers to help fulfill manpower quotas on jobsites, in recent years the federal government began instituting the wholesale rejection of local contractors’ foreign labor requests. The outcome was the result of an assertion by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that Guam contractors had failed to establish a stipulated “temporary need” for foreign workers by neglecting the full development of a permanent local workforce. The application turn-down rate soon reached 100 percent. And the publication of a note in the January 18, 2019 Federal Register further complicated the issue by making official a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rule removing the Philippines from the U.S. H-2A and H-2B eligibility lists for 2019. That removal made the process of hiring Filipino temporary workers for Guam jobs more costly and complicated.
Although DHS raised concerns in the Register about a recent 40% overstay rate among Filipino workers admitted to the U.S. on H-2B temporary work visas, overstay rates on Guam have remained three percent or less. While the H-2A visa is for temporary agricultural nonimmigrant workers, the H-2B visa is for non-agricultural nonimmigrant temps. Both types of visas are issued to foreign nationals to fill temporary jobs for which U.S. workers are not available.
The Philippines-Guam connection
For decades Guam contractors have relied on skilled Filipino H-2B workers to help fulfill manpower requirements on jobsites. Over that time an intricate network of developers, builders, on-the-job-trainers, suppliers, government entities, lawyers, labor agencies, and affordable, reliable workers has become a reliable system with which local contractors are loath to part.
Somewhat encouragingly for Guam, the U.S. federal government has made an exception to the general rule against approving H-2A and H-2B workers from the Philippines. This is in order to allow thousands of qualified Filipinos to fill H-2B skilled worker vacancies created by an unfolding spate of federal contracting related to a multibillion-dollar military buildup on Guam.
But as federal contracts pile up and a variety of resort hotel construction plans remain on indefinite hold, demand for durable modern infrastructure and affordable housing in civilian Guam mounts, and the need for unique visitor attractions and retail variety pends until Guam’s various population demographics begin swelling rapidly in the next few years, right alongside employment levels and visitor arrivals. (PR)