It has been 26 years since Rakibul Islam Minto left Bangladesh to work in the United States island territory of the CNMI. He arrived on Saipan in 1991, where he first worked as a security guard. After managing to save enough money, Minto partnered with one of his countrymen in a business venture in 1998. Since 2003, he has slowly branched out to other services. He is now the general manager-owner of Asia Pacific Market, on top of having an auto repair shop and providing maintenance service, tax collection, and documents handling.
Despite these, he remains one of the long-time guest workers that are under the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Nonimmigrant Visa or CW1—a program that allows foreigners to legally work in the CNMI. The visa is renewed annually.
That’s why the fading hopes of Minto and the likes of Bang Won Suk, Mami Ikeda, Flora Dela Cruz, Ariel and Edwina Ruiz, and Russel Guiao-Gozon, and thousands of others like them was rekindled when the issue of granting improved status to long-time guest workers came up once more.
“It would be easier for us long-time workers to put up businesses here if we can earn permanent residency status. A lot of guest workers here have contributed to the CNMI’s economy and some even stayed when it was down,” said Minto.
He added that an improved status would also mean lesser fees after U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services increased the renewal fee from $325 to $460 last Dec. 23.
Minto said he also consulted an immigration lawyer if he could apply for an E2 or H2B visa category, but was told that he would not qualify. “It would take a long time for the application and there’s no guarantee of being approved. Plus the fee is $3,000.”
An E2 investor visa allows an individual to enter and work inside the U.S. while an H2B visa is for temporary non-agricultural “service or labor” granted “on a one-time, seasonal, peakload or intermittent basis.”
Ikeda, who also managed to put up her own business with the help of her late brother Kazu, expressed grief over the situation of CW1 workers, especially those affected by the numerical cap and have no choice but to exit the CNMI and wait while their documents are being processed. She is also under the CW1 program but is waiting for approval of her E2 visa category.
“I applied for E2 visa since it is the only way for me to continue my stay here in the CNMI. But it is still pending,” said Ikeda, who owns a document processing and accounting service firm. “But what about those people who contributed so much to the CNMI, they have to leave while new CW workers are coming in? It doesn’t make sense to me and it is insulting.”
Even immediate relatives of legal CNMI permanent residents are having problems after their parole renewals were withheld, with USCIS Guam waiting for Honolulu’s final decision.
“Their renewals are in limbo since filing in September 2016. They’ve been on hold and nothing has moved until now. I’m hoping that USCIS and President Trump won’t kick them out. Some of them even took over the businesses of their principal LPRs that have passed away.”
She predicts that more small businesses would close down if no permanent solution is found. “They may say, why did we not apply for a proper visa or just point fingers and tell us it’s our fault, but we could have if we had enough funds to pay for the fees. Or if we weren’t given hope for an improved status.”
For Bang, Dela Cruz, Guiao-Gozon, and the Ruizes, residency status would give long-time foreign laborers an easier time in going back to their country either for a vacation or emergency without the hassle of applying for a CW1 visa just to return to the CNMI.
“It would give us long-time guest workers more security to stay here. Recently we had problems with the renewals and CW1 cap. The U.S. government must be aware of the status of the CW1 workers here, especially those who have kids,” said Bang, who had been working on Saipan for 18 years now.
“I join the others who are hoping that our status improves since it is also good for business and the economy. We still need to go through the U.S. embassy in Korea if ever we go back there and when we return here.”
If granted an improved status, Dela Cruz, Guiao-Gozon, and the Ruizes said they would choose to remain in the CNMI rather than move to the mainland.
“Honestly, if given permanent residency or an improved status here, I would stay here and not move to the mainland. I don’t like the cold weather and it is hard to leave Saipan since it has become my second home,” said Dela Cruz, who had been working here since 1997.
“It is here where I grew old and it is here where I earned the money that had helped my family back in the Philippines. So why would I leave here? If given the chance and our status improves here, I would just go to the States for vacation since I also have relatives there,” added the mother of two, whose eldest had just turned 19.
Guiao-Gozon echoed Dela Cruz’s sentiments. “Long-time guest workers would no longer be worried if we are going to be renewed or not, or if the cap would affect us. If we’re given improved status, CW1 workers can always easily come back to Saipan if ever there’s an emergency where we have to go back to our country.”
She said she had been used to the island life since first being assigned in Rota. “Island life is very simple. The cost of living here is cheap compared to other places. It is not crowded and a less stressful working environment.”
The Ruizes also want to remain here.
“You’re going to relocate to the mainland and work there. What for, when you already have a job here? Plus, if ever you’re going on vacation or visit your country for an emergency, you would have a bigger travel expense,” said Ariel Ruiz.
Edwina Ruiz, Ariel’s wife, added that the cost of living either in Guam or other U.S. states is higher where you need to have at least two jobs in order to afford it.
“We’re much comfortable living here. This has been our second home.”
“The process of going back to the Philippines, either for vacation or an emergency, is really tedious. You’re going to pay additional $190, need to go though the embassy, and secure other documents that you need to go back to Saipan. If you have a permanent residency status, it would be a lot easier for guest workers like me to come back to Saipan,” added Edwina Ruiz.