‘Extend transition by 5 years’

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial will bring up once again the issue of the CNMI’s need to extend by five more years the federalization transition that is set to expire in 2014, this time at the annual meeting of U.S. governors in July, because the Fitial administration said the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Congress have not heeded the governor’s request since at least 2010.

“I will not wait for the last minute,” Fitial told Saipan Tribune in an interview.

Besides a local workforce that’s still not enough to cover the positions currently filled by foreign workers, Fitial said the federal government has been slow in processing most of the Commonwealth-only worker petitions.

“Can you imagine the time it’s taking to process CW-1?” Fitial asked.

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.

Press secretary Angel Demapan said yesterday the governor did make an official request in February 2010 to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and also lobbied rigorously for the extension in several congressional hearings he testified at in Washington, D.C. over the past two years.

“Unfortunately, neither the U.S. DOL nor the U.S. Congress has heeded this request,” Demapan said.

A decision on the extension has to be made “no later than 180 days prior to the expiration.”

“Gov. Fitial believes that a five-year extension is in fact warranted. The CNMI economy will still need foreign workers who may not necessarily be qualified to convert to an H1B status before the deadline. The bottom line here is that there is still not enough workers from the pool of resident workers to fill all the jobs currently held by foreign workers,” the press secretary said.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, however, has started working on its report to Congress on the impact of uncertainty related to two main issues: the federalization law’s requirement to zero out the number of CW permits by end of 2014, and the provision allowing the transition period to extend beyond Dec. 31, 2014.

GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, asked businesses in the CNMI about their sentiments on these two issues and the responses will be made part of the report.

Douglas Brennan, president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday that the Chamber has gone on record with GAO, “stating the SCC strongly recommends another five-year transitional period be initiated as soon as possible.”

“Not knowing if the U.S. Secretary of Labor will decide on whether or not an extension of the transition period is warranted has created a great deal of uncertainty within the business community and is affecting not only existing business activity, but potential investment in the CNMI,” Brennan said.

The Chamber, the largest business organization in the CNMI with some 150 members, recently polled its membership asking what effects ending any issuance of CW-1 visas for foreign national employees in 2014 would have on their ability to operate their businesses in the CNMI.

“The results were eye-opening and overwhelmingly in favor of an extension by U.S. Labor until 2019 and possibly beyond,” said Brennan, also the general manager of Microl Corp. and secretary of the Commonwealth Auto Dealers Association.

Brennan said Chamber member companies gave specific examples of how that “uncertainty” is affecting their decisions to operate, “but none seems more dramatic than what will happen at the Commonwealth Health Center if an extension period is not granted.”

“Over 100 nurses and attendants are needed to maintain current services. Ninety percent of those staffers have applied for CW-1 visas with USCIS. None of those applications have been issued as of today, but more importantly is what will happen to CHC if those CW-1 visas are zeroed out in 2014,” he said.

Brennan said the hospital cannot function without a qualified nursing staff and if there are no CW-1 permits past 2014, the hospital would collapse.

“The SCC would like to point out to the federal government that initiated this situation within the CNMI: If the CW-1 visa program ends in 2014, no doubt this will lead to the ruination of not just an economy, but will jeopardize the health, safety and welfare of all CNMI residents,” he added.

Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan), who comes from a family of businessmen, reiterated yesterday that the CW-1 permits recently approved by USCIS will expire during the same period next year, which is only a year away from the end of the transition period, yet there are still not enough local workers if and when foreign workers are told to leave the CNMI after 2014.

“We haven’t fully developed our local workforce. There are qualified local workers but they are not enough yet. If you’re looking at close to 12,000 foreign workers petitioned for CW and that means that’s the number still needed by private employers to help run this economy, and you’re only looking at a few thousand local workers and high school graduates, then the CNMI would have a big problem if you let these foreign workers go,” Yumul said.

He said transitioning to a federal system takes considerable time, and he believes it should be extended for at least five years.

“There’s just no way we can run this economy if we zero out the foreign worker population by end of 2014,” he added.

U.S. Public Law 110-229, also known as the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, provides for a transition period not to exceed Dec. 31, 2014, wherein all guest workers in the CNMI will be eliminated.

The law also provides that the U.S. Secretary of Labor will assess the CNMI’s current and anticipated labor needs of the CNMI and determine whether an extension of up to five years is necessary to ensure an adequate number of workers will be available for businesses in the Commonwealth, Demapan said.

Fitial will be attending the meeting of the National Governors Association in Virginia in July.

Demapan said the NGA has been a tool that governors use to collectively seek federal or congressional assistance on matters relating to state governments.

“Gov. Fitial is likely to discuss this matter with his colleagues in the NGA to see what kind of support the governors can collectively offer on behalf of the CNMI’s plea for a simple amendment solely intended to ensure that the Commonwealth’s economy does not get crippled and eventually destroyed,” he said.

Founded in 1908, the NGA has as members the governors of the 50 states, three territories, and two commonwealths.

Haidee V. Eugenio | Reporter
Haidee V. Eugenio has covered politics, immigration, business and a host of other news beats as a longtime journalist in the CNMI, and is a recipient of professional awards and commendations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental achievement award for her environmental reporting. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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