A ranking Philippine official agrees with Guam’s adviser on foreign affairs, Carl T.C. Gutierrez, that now is the time to reactivate “robust economic and cultural exchanges” between the Philippines and the U.S. territory.
In a statement issued on Aug. 4, it said that current conditions “should soon ripen toward (1) U.S. visa waivers for an increasingly affluent Philippine citizenry wishing to visit Guam and (2) unimpeded employment visas for qualified workers seeking jobs there.
The statement added that lifting present barriers “will go a long way toward advancing shared benefits between the U.S. Department of Defense and the people of Guam and the Philippines.”
The news release was issued soon after the visit to Guam of retired Philippine Court of Appeals associate justice Francisco P. “Nick” Acosta, who is now the Philippine secretary of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.
In a recent interview with Nestor Licanto of the Guam television station KUAM, Acosta praised Gov. Lourdes A. “Lou” Leon Guerrero’s policies toward the Philippines and former Guam governor Carl T.C. Gutierrez, who now serves as Leon Guerrero’s chief advisor on economic development, national and international, for promoting those policies.
“Through the efforts of former governor Carl Gutierrez, acting for and on behalf of…incumbent governor Lourdes Leon Guerrero, we were able to have an initial conference with our executive secretary,” he said.
Returning the gesture
Acosta was in Guam this past week as a result of Gutierrez’s multiple missions to the Philippines and regular correspondence with the Duterte government since March of this year. During an informal reception at Malacañang Palace in April, Gutierrez enlisted the endorsement of Salvador C. Medialdea—President Rodrigo Duterte’s executive secretary—for the formation of a Philippines-Guam Visa Task Force.
“In fact, during my visit, I asked…Medialdea to appoint a high-level attaché to represent the Philippines in pursuit of a joint effort to persuade the U.S. government to grant visa waivers to Philippine citizens wishing to visit…Guam while loosening onerous restrictions on Filipino skilled workers seeking employment here on island,” Gutierrez said.
He thanked Acosta for his visit, saying, “To have someone of Secretary Acosta’s stature visit Guam is really so much more than I expected! His special diplomatic mission tells me that Malacañang values this relationship as much as Adelup and the people of Guam do,” he said.
Gutierrez organized a dinner meeting for Acosta, Philippine Consul General to Guam Marciano R. De Borja, and Vice Consul Alex O. Vallespin. Among guests were Black Construction Corp.’s senior vice president and general manager Leonard K. Kaee and vice president of Accounting & Finance Mark J. Mamczarz, both representing Guam contractors affected by the problematic H-2B process. The dinner took place Tuesday, July 30, at Hotel Nikko in Tumon, where discussion focused on H-2B issues.
“Since my request for a high-level appointment, our consulate here has received instructions to work with our administration to facilitate acquisition of a Philippine visa waiver,” Gutierrez said. “Consul General De Borja has the go-ahead from Malacanang to begin working with Adelup and is now awaiting formalization of a collaborative working group to be promulgated by Gov. Leon Guerrero.”
Acosta intimated to Gutierrez on Tuesday that remittances from the worldwide diaspora of Filipino workers had helped to end the feast-and-famine conditions between seedtime and twice-annual harvest in the Philippines decades ago. Acosta told Gutierrez he remains grateful that the money Filipino workers send back home accounts for as much as 10% of the Philippines’ gross national product.
Clearing the hurdles
Current visa restrictions on Philippine passport holders stem in part from federally reported 40% overstay rates in the U.S. mainland at a time when qualified construction workers are sorely needed for capital improvement projects in civilian villages across Guam.
Filipino overstay rates in Guam are reportedly only at 3%, not nearly as steep as in the American mainland, where human trafficking is a suspected culprit.
It is hoped that by January of next year, the Philippines will be back on the U.S. Federal Register’s list of nations pre-cleared for H-2A (temporary agricultural) and H-2B (non-agricultural skilled worker) visa permitting. Shy of that, Adelup and local contractors are hoping Guam will soon be exempted from the federal rule.
Meanwhile, a local population increase of thousands is expected as a result of (a) Guam’s ensuing $8.7- billion U.S. military buildup, (b) rising demand for hotel rooms by regional travelers who are turned away from the island by the tens of thousands during peak vacation seasons, and (c) migration and job growth from new economic activity.
The federal government has approved up to 4,000 H-2B workers per year for construction projects within Guam’s military bases, but local contractors have grown gun-shy about hiring Filipino workers due to costly new foreign-labor petitioning and application restrictions, as well as federal turn-down rates of up to 100 percent in recent years.
The total denial of new H-2B visas had stemmed from a growing federal perception that the Guam contracting community had repeatedly failed to demonstrate a “temporary need”’ litmus test that “should have” sooner led to the training of an adequate local workforce. Nevertheless, some builders have bitten the bullet and taken the recruitment plunge, resulting in about 900 Filipino workers now on island and roughly 600 more already approved for work migration. It has been estimated that by 2022 or 2023, Guam will need as many as 6,000 to 7,000 skilled workers to meet the labor needs of the island’s buildup era.
Peace and pragmatism
Acosta visit to Guam is being looked at as evidence that the Duterte Administration is prioritizing the wellbeing of the Philippines’ centuries-old connections to Guam.
“Our government is willing to give all the cooperation it can in order to have that travel visa-free for Filipinos to Guam,” Acosta told Licanto. “Our standard of living has significantly increased…so that Filipinos can now afford to visit other countries.” (PR/Saipan Tribune)