E-2C, asylum bar, H visa cap exemption extension
While thousands of foreign workers now have until 2019 to continue working in the CNMI, some of their employers holding E-2C investor visas are still in limbo. On Thursday, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee approved Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan’s (Ind-MP) bill extending the E-2C and CW programs and two other immigration policies affecting the CNMI and Guam, but there’s no telling whether this bill could become law by Dec. 31, 2014.
E-2C is a CNMI-only foreign investor program that is set to expire after 2014.
“For us E-2C investors, it’s still hard to plan for the future because we still don’t know if we will be allowed to be here after 2014,” E-2C investor visa holder James Han told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
He said nine of his 12 employees at QQ Car Rental are CW permit holders.
Even if he wants to employ them up to 2019, this won’t be possible if the E-2C program is not extended.
Han is now working on putting up a similar business in Guam—both as a cushion just in case the E-2C investor visa program in the CNMI is not extended beyond 2014 and as a business expansion decision.
He also thinks that extending the CW program is “only postponing the problem, not fixing the problem.”
Han said both long-term legal foreign workers and long-term investors in the CNMI should be given a more permanent and improved U.S. immigration status.
Rep. George Camacho (R-Saipan) said yesterday it is “critical” at this point when the CNMI economy is reviving to have a “stable labor force.”
“However, we need to take this opportunity to address the CNMI workforce in a more permanent long-term status,” he said.
Sablan’s H.R. 4296 passed the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee by unanimous consent on Thursday.
The committee action came after U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez granted the CNMI’s request to extend the CW program by five years or up to Dec. 31, 2019. But Perez’s decision only extends the CW program. Sablan’s HR 4296 addresses three other unique programs.
Under Sablan’s bill, the E-2C foreign investor program continues a provision of CNMI immigration law that allowed non-U.S. citizens to live in the Commonwealth if they made a minimum investment of $50,000.
Sablan said the CNMI government decided these investors were economically important and promised them residency.
“The Commonwealth made a commitment. We told them if they invested they could live here. So it is only fair to them—and probably better for our economy—to grandfather those investments for another five years,” he said.
HR 4296 also extends the exemption from the numerical limit on H visas in Guam and the CNMI. The exemption was originally intended to meet the U.S. military buildup’s labor needs.
“But the buildup has been delayed. And the Defense Department says that a lack of H2-B construction workers would cause further delay at a time when our region is becoming of increasing strategic importance. So I think it is for the good of our country to extend the H visa exemption,” Sablan said.
If and when Sablan’s HR 4296 becomes law, it will extend up to 2019 the CNMI’s exemption from accepting asylum applications.
Sablan said U.S. Public Law 110-229, which gave the federal government the responsibility for immigration in the CNMI, said it should be done “in a way that would expand tourism and economic development, wherever possible.”
“The bar on asylum does that,” he said. “No one can come here and claim political asylum. That gives the Department of Homeland Security more flexibility to allow tourists from China and Russia to enter visa-free. And those tourists now account for 28 percent of total arrivals.”
Gov. Eloy S. Inos supports an extension of the asylum application exemption, so as not to risk losing Chinese and Russian tourists who are allowed to enter the CNMI without a U.S. visa.
H.R. 4296, however, still has to be approved by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee before it can be taken before the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote, Sablan said.
After that, the U.S. Senate must also approve the bill before it reaches the president’s desk for action.
“We just have to keep working. But at least it is clear we are making forward progress and building support for keeping these programs in place for another five years,” Sablan said.
Sablan introduced HR 4296 on March 25, out of concern that two larger omnibus territories bills in the U.S. House and Senate were not moving quickly enough. These two bills also extend the transitional program.
A month after he introduced HR 4296, U.S. House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs chair Dr. John Fleming held a hearing. On Thursday, U.S. House Natural Resources Committee chair Doc Hastings brought the bill before the full Committee for a vote.
Sablan thanked both Fleming and Hastings “who moved my bill swiftly through the hearing and mark-up process.”
More on CW extension
Nick Nishikawa, general manager of Hyatt Regency, said on Friday that the CNMI’s major industry, tourism, will “definitely benefit from this five-year CW extension.”
“With the continuous growth within the tourism industry, hotels on island will have the opportunity to train U.S. workers for essential job functions—this is very good for Hyatt Regency Saipan,” Nishikawa said in a statement.
He said they are also pleased to hear that these good foreign workers “are able to extend their CW status for another five years as we need more time to integrate U.S. workers into the workforce.”
“The training will help us ensure that care and service are extended to tourists coming from various countries with the standard of service we so proudly uphold at Hyatt,” said Nishikawa, who is also president of the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Carlito Marquez, a long-time foreign worker in the CNMI, said the CW extension will also “extend the agony, uncertainties, and worries of foreign workers for five years.”
Every year, the number of CW workers will have to be reduced until it reaches zero by end of 2019.
“Our quest for improved immigration status advocacy remains intact for the next five years or more if given a chance for a continued employment,” Marquez said. “On the other hand, the good news is that, for those foreign workers with U.S. citizen children, five years extension is Uncle Sam’s gift as there will be enough time to nurture their growing children. Training them is a plus factor.”