The delay in the release of a new work permit that would allow them to continue working in the CNMI is fast becoming a widening net of problems for many foreign workers.
Not only do they face the prospect of a forced exit from the CNMI by the end of the month but they also need to make arrangements for their children who are still in school and they will have to leave behind. Many companies that will have to release many workers are looking at the grim prospect of actually shutting down. On top of that, as Sept. 30 draws closer, plane tickets are becoming more expensive each day.
One CW worker in the retail business, Princess (name withheld by request), who has been working on Saipan for 10 years, said that her company is on the verge of closing as there are 12 of them set to exit the CNMI. “Our situation is heartbreaking…here I am trying to build a life for me and my family back home and all of a sudden it will be cut,” she said.
That’s not to mean these workers can’t return. There employers could bring them back once U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approves their work permit. But there is no fixed time on how long USCIS will take to process a permit. These workers could be out of the CNMI for as long as three months.
“My family and I have no choice but to exit even if it is against our will,” said IT expert Lee (name withheld by request). “It has been really hard as my children were born here, they don’t know any other home and two out of my three children are already in school and now here I am taking them out of that environment.”
Lee, whose application is in the recruitment report stage, is not sure if her renewal that petition will make it to the CW processing, which is why her employer is in the process of booking her plane ticket.
As it is, guest workers under the CNMI-Only Transition Worker program only have 11 days to go before their permits expire.
“It’s hard to leave a place that you love due to reasons not within your control. It feels like all the years of hard work will go to waste,” Lee said.
The state of the CW renewals became especially fraught this year when Public Law 115-218 set new rules that require employers to secure Temporary Labor Certifications from the U.S. Department of Labor before they can apply for CW renewal petitions.
This further prolonged the CW renewal processing, according to Abigail (full name withheld by request). “USDOL mentioned that they would do their best to expedite the prevailing wage survey and TLCs. Unfortunately, there are cases where TLCs take more than 60-90 days turnaround time…and this is normally just the amount of time to do a whole process of Job Vacancy Announcement and the USCIS application proper.”
Abigail, who has been working in the CNMI for four years, believes the CNMI government should be asking USCIS to extend all CW renewal cut-off from Sept. 30 to Oct. 30 or more to offset the lost time for the additional process with USDOL.
“This would then give the employers more time to process the USCIS CW application proper,” she said.
In a previous interview, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres said he requested for an extension of the CW application process but is also aware of the late applications. Torres also wrote USCIS last August asking for a dialogue on options that are available to CNMI employers in processing their CW applications.
“The loss of these workers presents a dire situation for our employers, our economy, and the U.S. workers who work alongside CW visa holders,” said Torres. “With this imminent threat to the CNMI workforce, employers are considering closing businesses or limiting operations which contributes to the emergency state of the CNMI’s economy…”
Khaichelle Jeramos, an IT network administrator assistant, arrived on island only last month with her daughter. “I worked for another company [in the CNMI] in 2017 and, while waiting for my CW renewal, I went back to the Philippines to wait there only to find out that my application was disapproved due to mistakes in the form filled by my former employer. I tried again with the company I am working for now and, with the expiration getting near, it feels like I am facing a wall,” she said.
“But my hopes are still up that an extension in the applications will be granted. Truthfully, I accumulated loans to uproot my daughter from the Philippines to bring her here and start her education. Working for a month does not even help me recover all the expenses that we have incurred…life looks grim if we are sent back,” she added.
Aside from the CW extension, Lee is also hoping for the enactment of Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan’s (Ind-MP) H.R. 560, the Northern Mariana Islands Residents Relief Act that provides a Commonwealth-only resident status to those who have legally been in the CNMI for a long time.
“I have been here for 13 years, my husband 22 years, and our children were born here. Saipan is our first home now and I hope the congressman will push the bill and figure out the issues,” she said.
There is a possibility that some workers would rather incur illegal time rather than exit. One worker told Saipan Tribune that he will opt to stay in the CNMI if his CW permit is not renewed and situations like this will yet create more immigration problems, both locally and federally.
Faced with the hardships of getting her CW visa renewed, the possibility of income loss and living each moment in uncertainty, Abigail said that it occurred to her to look for a job elsewhere. “I thought about that…look for a job in a different country where we can have a strong foothold and knowing that our job is not hanging by a thread every single year.”