Even small businesses that employ 20 or fewer workers are feeling the impact of the current issue on the lottery system implemented by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker or CW-1 program.
Last April, USCIS used a computer-generated random selection system to select CW1 petitions to meet the 4,999 numerical cap for fiscal year 2019. The lottery system was for all petitions received from April 2 to 13.
All petitions that were not selected in the lottery, including applications for all nurses at the Commonwealth Health Center, were returned.
That’s why Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios said the only hope now is for House Resolution 5956, introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) in the U.S. House of Representatives, to be enacted before the start of fiscal year 2019 on Oct. 1, 2018.
H.R. 5956, the CNMI Workforce Act, passed the House early this month and is awaiting action in the Senate.
Sen. Liza Murkowski (R-Alaska) has introduced a similar bill in the U.S. Senate but, since it has a revenue-generating clause, the House needs to do it.
All revenue-generating bills must come from the House. Part of the CW1 fee applications paid by employers or companies goes to the CNMI government for training and other local workforce enhancement.
Palacios cited the Ming Lee store in As Lito as one of the businesses that is affected with the CW1 lottery system. “Some of the small businesses like, for example Ming Lee, they are not [an SCC] member.”
“They said they are closing down because they can’t find local workers and I guess also because of the CW1 program. I’ve also heard that other businesses have been affected because they’ve gotten rejections for their CW1 visas,” Palacios added.
Ming Lee has put all of their goods on sale as much half off their original price, including all of their equipment like freezers, as they are about to shut down their operations at the end of the month after more than two decades of doing business on the island.
She said that H.R. 5956 being enacted is the only hope. “[Businesses] are hoping that this legislation would pass. But then, people are still gambling whether it would happen or not. Some of their workers may decide to just leave.”
“It affects everyone, not necessarily only the hotel because some of the small businesses that I’ve talked to, they’ve only received a few. Like, if they submitted 10, they’ve only gotten three or four renewals.”
She added that skilled laborer positions—auto mechanics, air-condition and refrigeration technicians, and tower climbers—are among those that are also affected. “It has affected everyone.”
Rep. Joseph Leepan T. Guerrero (R-Saipan) echoed Palacios’ statement as he believes other businesses—big or small—would soon follow Ming Lee’s path unless President Trump signs H.R. 5956 into law.
“It is very costly to the remaining operation absent of CW1 or qualified local or U.S. workers. Until such time that the CNMI is granted a CW1 extension plus increase in numbers, majority of the private businesses would need to downsize.”
“Or [worse] is to shutdown. Private businesses are dependent on qualified workers to be sustainable and profitable,” added Guerrero, who is the Commerce and Tourism committee chair in the CNMI House of Representatives.