The Saipan Chamber of Commerce presented a panel of experts at a symposium yesterday for workers and employers affected by the federal government’s cap on contract workers allowed in the CNMI this fiscal year.
A panel of experts—attorneys Nelson Xu and Bruce Mailman and IT&E human resource manager Shirley Dotts—spoke on visa programs, conversion options, and common misconceptions in the permitting process to a crowd at the Pacific Islands Club’s Charley Cabaret yesterday.
The breached cap and the 10-day window provided by the federal government for workers affected and their families to leave after their permits expire is a continuing concern, and is expected to force over a thousand workers, not including their families, to leave the Commonwealth as early as May until October.
Mami Ikeda, a contract worker who finds her profession in helping process permits for different clients, has her permit expire in September. She said she was about to prepare to submit her petition but was cutoff by the announced May deadline.
“Now I am trying to see if anything will change for the people who missed the cap,” she said.
Ikeda came back to Saipan in 2009, but her whole family has been on island since she was in the fourth grade, in the late 1970s.
“My parents had business here. My brothers stayed here for 40 years. They now are all passed. When I came back in 2009, contract worker was the only way I can stay here so I had no chance. They passed away. They were CNMI permanent residents,” she said.
Ikeda has also started a page on Facebook called “Faces of CW” to share the group of affected workers’ concerns.
Asked how she felt knowing she had to leave in September, she said, “I can’t. I can’t.”
“My dad and brother are both buried in Tanapag and I have a business here and I have a cat to look after. I don’t have my own family but I just cannot leave.”
Another affected person, employer Sylvan Tudela of Chelu Photos, runs a three-man photography and video business that depends on the skills of small staff he has. One of his employees’ permit expires in September, meaning that he will have to send this employee back to his home country and hope a permit can be approved in time.
“My company is a three-person company. It’s a very small business. I’m a local business owner and work by myself in this industry. I need people to work with me,” he said.
“It’s hard for me to find people with the talent like what I have with my employees right now. Not just the talent, but the know-how, the experience…It’s very daunting for me because I could lose a lot of clients just for that one person.
“Our jobs are based on recording people’s live, recording people’s most important events,” Tudela said. Chelu Photos does photography and video for weddings and other events. “It will be really hard for me to do what I am offering now if I lost that one person. I don’t know what I’d do.”
Tudela said the symposium yesterday was enlightening. He said the avenues presented as options, though, like other visa class options, we’re not easy tasks and appear more expensive. It’s also a lot more paperwork, he added.
“So it’s not going to be any easier for a small business person like myself to try and survive something like this,” he said. “I am not giving up hope but it just makes it harder for me to do my job.”
The symposium had attorney Nelson Xu speak on various types of visa program, attorney Bruch Mailman speak on strategies for securing and maintaining labor force, and Shirley Dotts, human resource manager at IT&E, speak on common misconceptions and mistakes from the employers perspective.
Xu says that he and Mailman both are in the opinion that parole—for employees with visas expiring before Oct. 1—“is not going to work,” for companies that might try this route.
“That is not an option because for parole in place to work—according to U.S. immigration, people we talk to—the person must not be granted any U.S. visas. So if the person has a CW visa, now expired, they are not eligible for parole. So that’s out.”
Xu believes there are very limited options for the affected to continue working on island without first leaving.
“Our recommendation is to always not leave any room for misinterpretation, so that there visa status would not be jeopardized,” Xu said, who works at Bauman, Kondas, and Xu, LLC based out of Guam.
“Our firm would recommend that people leave and then come back and then apply for the new CW visas with the starting date of Oct. 1 and then come back so you don’t leave any misinterpretation” and “confusion to [U.S.] immigration and give them a reason to deny the CW” visa.
He understands that many don’t want to leave but thinks it might be the better option.
Xu says there are rules they are still trying to clarify as to whether employees or employers can use that 10-day window to leave after expiration as a “bridge” between the expiration date and the start date of the next visa, but says that is still not clear. “And when it’s not very clear, I’d like to play it safe. I think I would recommend them to leave and apply now” and “try to get the new one [permit] as soon as possible” before cap space is used up for next fiscal year.
“Then you are out for even a longer period of time,” he added. “That is kind of a risk.”
On transitioning to other visa categories
Xu said the No. 1 thing for those with expiring visas to do is to look at themselves and see if there is any possibility of converting to a different visa without leaving.
This could be to an H-visa, or any other visa, he said. And it’s very important to look at family based petitions, he added, whether they are family, relatives, immediate family U.S. citizens, to apply for in the future or very soon, before they choose to leave.
“All these options have to be exhausted. They probably need some professional help. It’s very complicated. We need to look at every option. Then if there is no other way to go then they have to leave,” he said.