Kia’aina, Gulick hear first-hand tales of CW crisis

Chamber reiterates call for developers to pull construction workers off CW quota

U.S. government officials heard first-hand from business and community groups affected by the federal government’s breached cap on contract workers this year and the plight of these affected workers under a system that does not prioritize renewals of long-term workers and will have over a thousand of these workers pack their bags and leave the CNMI up to the end of the fiscal year in October.

Mami Ikeda, one of those who spoke for affected contract workers in the meetings at Office of the Governor on Saturday, said she broke down when she started talking about her family, who had lived on island for decades and are buried here. Ikeda she asked the federal officials—who included Department of Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Esther Kia’aina and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services regional director David Gulick—to “do the same thing” for contract workers as they do for those under H-visas, which is “accepting all renewals” so they “won’t be included under the cap.”

USCIS last month announced that they’d accepted enough applications to meet their fiscal year 2016 12,999 cap on contract workers and that those who did not make an early May deadline or had applications rejected would have to pack their bags and leave to their home countries within ten days after their permit expires.

“They said they understood the situation with all the business being in danger because all these CW people leaving the island,” Ikeda, who first arrived on Saipan in the late 1970s, told reporters after she stepped out of the Office of the Governor. “Since I was the only CW in the room I thought I would speak as an affected CW, I thought that was my job today.”

She also said a lady from the Chinese Association of Saipan also broke down relaying her own issues and spoke about what the Chinese community was going through.

The lady spoke about how she won’t be able to go home to see her mom before she passed, she started to break down before me… she represented the whole Chinese community and talked things that her community is going through

“It humanizes the story,” Kia’aina said, before stepping into a van to leave Capitol Hill on Saturday. She was asked how she felt when Ikeda broke down before the visiting officials.

Still, despite the face-to-face, some are cautious about immediate administrative fixes USCIS can do on their part to alleviate the strain on families and a growing economy.

Frank Gibson, immediate past present of NMI Chapter of the Society of Human Resources, one of the groups that presented the issues before Kia’aina and Gulick this weekend, stressed the “immediate difficulties” caused by the some 1,300 people “going home,” who may be key employees of small business on island that may not be able to function without them.

Still, he said, there “weren’t any comments coming back.” “No one is going to commit to anything at this point. We were expressing the thoughts and the positions and possibilities… It is up to them to come up with answers on those.

“There’s not much I can say about that. It’s a problem that’s not going to be resolved easily,” he added.

Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios, said that Kia’aina wanted to know “examples” of what will happen or what is happening to businesses.

“So we had Bud White saying he has three businesses and with these non-renewals, his workers will have to go home and he would have to close down the businesses, that was just one example,” Palacios said.

There was another example about how one clinic were losing 11 employees, and another 33, she added.

Gulick, for his part, declined to elaborate on the meeting but indicated the messages delivered in the meeting Saturday would make its way back to decision makers in the nation’s capitol.

“It will get back to D.C.,” Gulick said twice, as he strode into the Office of the Governor’s parking lot on Saturday.

Torres, for his part, when asked if he felt they successfully brought the “human side” to the ongoing issue, said, “Yes. More so now.”

The meetings were about “having to hear it first hand from them,” Torres said. “I thank the 902 folks for coming out here and literally something they don’t have to do. They are doing it now to hear first hand…the status of where we are at both socially and economically.”

Torres, on the emotional presentations, said the federal officials, “are very sympathetic about it. And just hearing a lot of the folks, that is the reason why they are here to hear the concerns first hand and to ask questions.”

Saipan casino mum

Meanwhile, the Saipan casino has still not responded to request for comments how they view a unified request from the Chamber, SHRM, and the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands last week for them to pull out or cancel construction worker visas for their developments who are not yet on the ground.

The groups also asked Honest Profit International, Ltd., another hotel developer group, who with Best Sunshine International, Ltd., the Saipan casino, has strained the contract worker quota with applicants for new construction workers when they could have applied for these under the H-visa system, which the CNMI sees no cap for.

Chamber secretary and Tan Holdings vice president Alex Sablan said they have not heard back from the groups on the request. Sablan said they had talked to an individual they thought was a responsible representative of the developers organization out of “a general concern” they had—coming from “Section 902” consultations with federal government and other immigration officials last week on the crisis, which Sablan sits on as a representative for the business community—was that there was “no immediate administrative relief by USCIS that would stop the impact that is occurring as of that day last Wednesday but until today up to this very point in time.”

“People are having to pack up and leave the Commonwealth and this we felt—as organizations—we felt the only alternative we had left was to ask the individual corporations that have the very visas that are exhausted the cap, to ask them to pull the cap, at this stage, until we have an administrative fix,” he said

“And I think that that is bigger than anything that is going on today as far as development, as far as trying to get a casino facility off the ground and operational… We believe that people matter here. We believe that families matter here. Whether they are local families and/or foreign national workforce families—we are in this together.”

Emphasizing it was “short term,” Sablan said they believe the delay in receiving workers for development would allow the CNMI the opportunity to vet out USCIS’ opportunities to filing for regulation changes, and have the federal government “hear us out about how we need to manage our CW workforce visas going forward.”

In today’s scenario—what has played out over the last two, three weeks with the recent notice—it’s obvious that the CNRA (Consolidated Natural Resources Act), the CW program, needs an adjustment, it needs a tweaking,” Sablan said.

“We cannot work with a first-come, first-in, first-out system. And so we were basically pushed into a realm into trying to find an immediate fix. And we felt that and still feel that the only immediate fix right now is for the two organizations that have large scale developments and large scale numbers of CW permits in the pipeline right now.” He added these permits go up to more than 5,000 beyond the fiscal year, according to the CNMI Department of Labor.

Noting the fiscal year cap was exhausted and the existing 1,200 construction workers in the CW program, Sablan said the near 7,000 construction worker visas in fiscal year 2017—out of a reduced quota—the federal government is charged with reducing the cap every year and Sablan hopes it is a negligible reduction of 1 12,998—“will collapse our economy.”

“There is no ifs, buts, about it,” he said. “And so as we’ve discussed we feel we need a short term relief, and the short term relief is asking them to pull back their visas at this stage, to pull the pressure off the quota system and to keep everybody that’s on the ground operating our businesses, this economy…”

Sablan believes delaying the projects is better than this economic collapse, when asked. “Delaying them short term, yes. Overall, it’s a bigger dynamic than just trying to get buildings built. We are talking about our overall economy here. We are talking about people here. And that’s what we are asking for.”

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at

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