‘Time to shift to H-visa class’


The time has come for businesses to comply with and for the federal government to enforce provisions to transition contract workers into a higher-paying H-visa system—that, or hire U.S. citizens in their place, business and government officials said Wednesday.

Both moves would meet the provisions of the Consolidated National Resources Act, which mandates an end to the contract worker program in 2019 and could potentially shepherd hundreds—even thousands—of foreign nationals to immediately qualify for CNMI prevailing wages under the H-visa system and lift them above U.S. poverty levels.

The move to the H-visa class appears to have met some resistance, though, as it is seen as the more cost-prohibitive and restrictive route compared to the contract worker program.

Business investors have been seeking assistance in expediting the process for foreign workers under CW visas, even if these workers are eligible for H-visas, Saipan Tribune learned. For one, an undisclosed construction firm seeking to do business in the CNMI has a pending application for some 500 contract workers who could readily be classified under the H-visa class, Saipan Tribune learned.

The contract worker program, as it is now, does not adequately incentivize a full-force transition pursuant to mandates under federal law. It is also believed to lack teeth to enforce these rules, as USCIS reportedly allows CW visas for H-visa eligible workers.

In the Saipan Chamber of Commerce’s monthly newsletter on Wednesday, president Alex Sablan suggested that USCIS and the CNMI Labor Department collaborate and insist that CW-1 law is complied with as is required in the CNRA.

“The time has come for all positions under an H-visa to be filtered out of CW-1 and employees either apply for H-visas or hire a U.S. citizen as required under” law, Sablan said.

Sablan believes hundreds or maybe even thousands of foreign national workers would immediately qualify for CNMI prevailing wages under the H-visa system or—the preferred alternative—CNMI U.S. citizens that may be hired instead of foreign workers.

Either way, Sablan said, many professional and skilled labor jobs would exponentially elevate these people above the U.S. poverty level. He adds, though, that many jobs would be lost in this transition because “our economy is in a flux and many employers may not be able to absorb the costly and time consuming impact of this process.”

“I believe the time has come,” Sablan wrote, “regardless of whether we are able to successfully garner enough U.S. congressional support to provide an extension beyond 2019 of the CW-1 visa program, the CNMI under this system will need to ensure job opportunities are available for U.S. citizen workers and at prevailing wage that has been determined based on sound economic analysis of our current economy.”

New projects need H-visas

Acting governor Ralph Torres told Saipan Tribune Wednesday that because the “H-1 visa is a specific project oriented…that’s exactly what we need here” to “not exhaust our contract worker workforce.”

“Those new projects—which are mostly construction—we need those additional H-1 visas,” he said. “We should have some sort of a different category for the new projects that we have. …Like the companies now, the only route now is to do CW. So that’s the only thing that the companies are going to move forward on is the CW. We should have a different category for the new projects.”

Bog down in permitting

The processing of CW permits has also met some delays.

“The USCIS immigration service is already now bogged down with thousands of new applications,” Sablan said Wednesday in his remarks at the Saipan Chamber of Commerce meeting.

Sablan noted that, with the existing CW workforce plus the additional quota in play, only about 1,600 slots remain.

“Every single one of those permits is now in play and being fought for because at this stage we don’t have the needed workforce,” he said.

Many businesses have been calling the Chamber, USCIS, the office of Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan, and the Inos administration because “permitting is getting bogged down by all these new permits, and the fact that we don’t have enough,” Sablan added.

“We are into our seventh year of transition under the USCIS federal immigration system, and it is time for businesses to look at the idea of either transitioning their foreign national workforce into an H-visa system [if] those people qualify, or hiring…a qualified U.S. citizen worker in the CNMI,” he said.

Tim Counts, Supervisory Public Affairs Officer of USCIS, explained in an email last week that “cases that involve large numbers of workers may require additional time to adjudicate, as each case needs to be considered on its own merits.”

“In order to give full and fair consideration to the evidence submitted by an employer, additional review time is often necessary,” Counts told Saipan Tribune.

The CNRA, the law that extended federal immigration laws into the Commonwealth, created a separate CW visa class for foreign workers in the CNMI that was supposed to last only until 2014, while transitioning to the H visa class provided in federal immigration law. However, Congress decided last year to extend the CW program by five more years—up to 2019—but this time with no further possibility of extending the temporary CW program. By 2019, all foreign workers in the CNMI should already be under the H visa class.

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 dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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