A collective howl of dismay went up yesterday after U.S. Citizenship Immigration Services announced early Wednesday morning its plan to zero out the foreign worker program in the CNMI, with many saying that the move puts at risk the economic resurgence of the Commonwealth.
The Saipan Chamber of Commerce, which has been front and center in calling for a minimal reduction of foreign workers in the CNMI, said the Commonwealth needs a sufficient workforce to sustain its economy.
Chamber president Velma Palacios said the CNMI economy is currently experiencing tremendous growth, but that growth has now been put at risk.
“We wrote to USCIS and Department of Homeland Security earlier this year, requesting a minimal reduction of the fiscal year 2018 cap of not more than one. The response from USCIS and DHS stated only that a reduction would take into account the provision of the law that requires an end to the program in 2019,” she said.
USCIS announced last Tuesday the cap for the final three fiscal years of the CNMI-Only Transition Worker program, starting with reducing 3,000 slots for fiscal year 2018.
Palacios said this will have a significant adverse effect, adding that the delay of the announcement compounds the negative effects, as the CNMI has been waiting several months for the fiscal year 2018 cap to be announced.
She pointed out that when the cap was reached in fiscal year 2017, many businesses had to close down for several months, reduce hours, or find other ways to maintain business operations.
“The current proposed reduction, which is about 76 percent of what was available in fiscal year 2017, will have an even more pronounced negative effect on our economy,” she said.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office report in May 2017 stated that, with current and planned development, the available number of U.S. qualified workers in the CNMI is insufficient for business operations.
“This fact is readily apparent to many struggling businesses in the CNMI which require specialized, skilled non-construction workers who are not eligible for visa categories other than CW-1. The logical conclusion is clear: the CNMI will require continued assistance with its workforce capacity through the CW-1 program,” Palacios added.
According to Palacios, the current proposed reduction will greatly affect all businesses, regardless of whether they hire U.S. qualified workers or nonresident workers through the CW-1 program, as the total pool of available workers remains the same.
“As our nonresident workers are forced to leave island, our businesses will strain to keep our existing workers and keep their businesses operational. These nonresident workers and their families are an integral part of the fabric of our society and have made significant contributions to our community and the CNMI economy,” she said
“Again, this reduction will negatively impact our economy and the community at large. The Chamber, along with other organizations like [the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands], the Society for Human Resources Management, Social Economic Development Council and Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp., will continue to collaborate with [Gov. Ralph DLG Torres] and [Delegate Gregorio] Kilili Sablan in the development of legislation and administrative actions to resolve our workforce issues,” Palacios added.