The Chamber was responding to a request by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to comment on any “uncertainty” businesses are facing as a result of the federalization of immigration authority. The Chamber strongly recommends that another five-year transition period be enacted as soon as possible.
GAO is the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress.
In a statement yesterday, the Chamber said its members summarized their uncertainty by stating the CNMI has been, and will continue to be, dependent upon foreign national employees to supplement the small numbers of U.S. potential hires in the CNMI.
“Together with the fact that there isn’t much training available in the CNMI for technical positions, the dependence will continue until a change in education evolves,” the Chamber said.
Gov. Benigno R. Fitial reiterated last week that he supports a five-year extension of the transition period, citing the continued need for skilled foreign workers that the CNMI local labor pool still could not fill.
The Chamber said companies report that local employees, once trained or after having received their formal educations, head to other U.S. jurisdictions for employment.
“Operations are shrinking, and the business customer base has decreased by over 25 percent in the past five years. At the end of the current transition period, without CW-1 visas, the economic meltdown will worsen,” it said.
Douglas Brennan, president of the Chamber, said, “Regardless of the eventual date CNMI employers can no longer apply for foreign national employees via CW-1 visas, the CNMI economy will suffer as a result of that loss in human resources.”
“The sooner the elimination of the CW-1 visa, the greater the impact,” he said.
At least one workers’ group, the United Workers Movement-NMI, said yesterday they have yet to take a formal position on whether or not to support extending the transition period.
“We’re doing research on this, with the help of experts. We’re looking at Public Law 110-229 to see whether ‘zeroing out’ workers at the end of the transition period would mean granting improved status to foreign workers or phase out of foreign workers. We’re also hoping that before 2014, all legal long-term alien workers will be granted improved status or green card,” UWM-NMI president Rabby Syed told Saipan Tribune.
Meanwhile, the Chamber said if the additional transition period weren’t granted, existing businesses would no longer be able to secure CW-1 visas past November 2014 for foreign national workers, and there would be a corresponding void of skilled labor that would no longer be available within the CNMI for businesses and essential services.
“SCC members, private and public, were overwhelmingly consistent in attesting to that uncertainty created with the approaching date of November 2014, where all CW-1 visa holders would be ‘zeroed out’, and companies employing CW-1 applicants in skilled positions would not be able to easily locate qualified replacements,” it said.
The Chamber of Commerce is the largest business organization in the CNMI with some 150 members.
CW-1 visa holders have a position range in the CNMI that’s enormous, the Chamber said.
It said CW-1 visa holders have positions in management, business and finance, computer and math, engineering and architectural technicians, legal and educational occupations, entertainment, healthcare support, protective services, food preparation, maintenance, sales, office administration, farming and fishing, installation and repair, automotive, production and transportation.
As of June 5, only about 29 percent or 3,422 of 11,739 foreign workers petitioned for a CW-1 status have been approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, based on USCIS data.
This means 71 percent more are still waiting for their CW permits.
The Chamber said a startling example of the disruption that would be caused when CW-1 visas are eliminated would be in the case of the Commonwealth Healthcare Center.
“According to administrators, the CHC has a little over 100 nurses, and 90 percent of those nurses are applying for CW-1 visas. None of those applications from the CHC have been processed and/or issued yet. If those CW-1 visas were no longer available, the hospital could not function, and would essentially cease to handle those needing medical services. The CHC has the only real operating rooms in the Northern Mariana Islands. Without nurses and attendants, everything stops,” the Chamber said.
It added that if the U.S. Labor Department recommends ending the transition in November 2014, a potential health threatening situation would unfold.
“It is also fair to say, without a functioning public health care center available for companies and their employees, CNMI residents would suffer. Further, future investment, the Chamber’s sought after retirement visa program and other new economic possibilities are severely threatened with this health care ‘uncertainty’ that will surely occur should the transition period not be extended,” the Chamber added.
PL 110-229, which placed CNMI immigration under federal control, allows U.S. Labor to extend the transition period beyond Dec. 31, 2014, if it thinks it is necessary to ensure an adequate number of workers are available to CNMI businesses.