1. CW-1 program cut by 3,000

A total of 3,000 slots were removed from the CNMI-only Transitional Worker Program, or the CW-1 program, for fiscal year 2018, which covers the period from Oct 1, 2017, to Sept. 31, 2018. In the early hours of Nov. 22, 2017, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services published in the Federal Register a numerical limit of 9,998 for the CW-1 program, down from 12,998. Previous CW-1 caps saw reductions of only one slot over the years.

The substantial cut prompted Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and the Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp. to rush to Washington, D.C. to seek a reprieve from the cut and congressional support for the extension of the CW-1 program, which is set to expire in 2019.

According to the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, the law that federalized CNMI immigration, the CW-1 program should expire by Dec. 31, 2014. The CNRA had a provision that gave the U.S. Secretary of Labor the discretionary authority to extend the CW-1 program. After one five-year extension, the discretionary authority was taken away; the CW-1 program can now only be extended by Congress.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) is working with the U.S. Congress, administration officials, and a working group that includes members of the NMBAC as well as Torres and led by U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) on extending the CW-1 program. (Erwin Encinares)

2. Saipan’s birth tourism

An indictment unveiled a complex birth tourism business web on Saipan. Sen Sun, an alleged overstaying tourist, has been charged in federal court for operating an unlicensed business that offered trip packages to the CNMI for pregnant Chinese women seeking to give birth on U.S. soil.

It wasn’t his unlicensed business that got him in trouble; it was his illegal employment scheme. Last Dec. 8, Sun pleaded guilty to harboring 15 illegal Chinese aliens that he used as workers to “take care” of the pregnant women.

Sun entered the CNMI as a tourist under a status known as conditional parole that allows Chinese citizens to enter the CNMI temporarily without an advance visa. Such permit does not allow them to work or to start a business in the CNMI.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it was a physician who tipped off the FBI to Sun’s operation of a large birth tourism network on the island. Under the scheme, Sun charged each client upward of $15,000 for services that includes round-the-clock caregivers who were or are unauthorized to work.

Saipan Tribune reported last June that a man with a plea deal with the U.S. government has exposed an alleged large-scale birth tourism business on Saipan that uses a farm to house pregnant women.

In 2014, ABC News reported on Saipan’s birth tourism, three months after they sent an investigative crew to the island to look into the issue. The network reported that Saipan is experiencing a baby boom due to the number of babies born to Chinese mothers, from only eight in 2009 to 282 in 2012. In 2009, the U.S. government allowed Chinese and Russian tourists to enter the CNMI under a conditional parole program. (Ferdie de la Torre)

3.Three killed at CUC sewer station

The CNMI community was shocked when three Filipino workers were killed while working inside a 24-foot sewer lift station of the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. in San Antonio last July 7.

Guam chief medical examiner Dr. Aurelio Espinola’s autopsy corroborated police investigators’ initial findings that the three died due to toxic gas exposure. Espinola concluded that the victims died of asphyxia due to hydrogen sulfide inhalation—a buildup from human waste.

CUC conducted its parallel investigation into the incident.

The workers, all employees of a CUC subcontractor, USA Fanter Ltd, were doing rehabilitation work on the sewer system when, one by one, they succumbed to the accumulated gas and fell inside the well.

CUC deputy director William B. Gilmore had assured the public that, despite the fatal accident, the agency abides by the rule that “there is no compromise to safety.”

As of press time, no one has been charged or sued as a result of the incident. (Ferdie de la Torre)

4. Drownings, missing, homicides

The year saw an unprecedented 13 drowning incidents in the CNMI, the mysterious disappearance of a lawyer, and three homicide cases. Except for one on Rota, all those cases happened on Saipan.

DROWNINGS. Last Dec. 19, a 62-year-old Chinese man drowned in the waters off Managaha Island. 

Zhang Shizhao was pronounced dead at the Commonwealth Health Center after resuscitation efforts to revive him failed.

According the victim’s son, he, his mother, and his father were in waist-deep water, when his father’s mask came off and he began coughing. By the time they reached the shore, his father had lost consciousness and they began to call for help. The victim’s son said his father had a heart bypass four years ago and he was using a pacemaker.

In another incident, search and rescue team failed to locate Kil Jun Min, a 35-year-old dive shop employee who as struck by a huge wave and dragged into rough waters at the secluded Hidden Beach in Talafofo last Dec. 5. Based on Saipan Tribune records, he was the 12th drowning victim for the year.

That did not include the death of the 52-year-old local man who died while fishing with four other men at a beach behind the TSL Building in Garapan last Dec. 6, as police placed the incident under further investigation.

The controversial drowning on Rota involved ocean swimmer Monte Monfore, 56, who was found floating in the swimming hole at Pinatang Park in the afternoon of Oct. 24. He was pronounced dead at the Rota Health Center.

Family and friends of Monfore expressed doubt that he died of drowning. The autopsy result showed no foul play and investigators ruled the case as an accidental death.

According to Charles “Chip” Guard, the warning coordination meteorologist for the Weather Forecast Office in Guam, rip currents are the major cause of drownings in the CNMI.

MISSING PERSONS. The disappearance of assistant public defender Jamal Saleh remained unsolved as of press time. The 49-year-old lawyer was last seen walking from his As Teo home last Oct. 3 at 1:30am. According to his girlfriend, he could not sleep that night and took a walk.

It was also in As Teo where the two Luhk sisters mysteriously disappeared at a bus stop pavilion in May 2011.

Last Nov. 2, search teams found the body of missing Joan Taitano at the bottom of a cliff near the Radar building in Marpi, two days after she was reported missing to the police. Moon Haeng Lee popularly known as “papasang” poses for a photo displaying the assortment of beddings sold at the “Magandang Utang” shop in central Garapan

Since 1995, at least 17 persons have been reported missing in the CNMI, yet those cases remain unsolved.

MURDER. Of three homicide cases this year, only one case did police make an arrest.

The death of security guard Jim Nimwes beside a poker arcade in Dandan has been ruled a homicide, based on massive injuries he received. Nimwes was still alive when police responded to the scene last March 16. He died the following day.

In November, the Department of Public Safety reclassified the death of Commonwealth Casino Commission employee Allan James Boyer Dela Cruz as a homicide. Guam chief medical examiner Dr. Aurelio Espinola earlier classified Dela Cruz’s cause of death as undetermined.

Police responded last Sept. 22 to a report about a dead person at a house on Mt. Tapohau. Police met at the scene witnesses who found Dela Cruz’s body on the ground.

Last Oct. 29, Alfonso Sebastian Parongan, 55, was arrested shortly after he allegedly attacked a couple with a knife, killing the woman and seriously injuring her husband outside a home in Chalan Kanoa. (Ferdie de la Torre)

5. Workers’ protest

The year saw a string of protests by construction workers over the lack of payment of contractors hired by Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC. Saipan Tribune was able to cover seven instances where protests were held.

The workers, who entered the CNMI under the visa-waiver program, have been separated into batches based on their contractor. The four main contractors involved with the construction of the Imperial Pacific Resort included Suzhou Gold Mantis Construction Decoration, CMC Macau, Beilida Overseas (CNMI) Ltd., and MCC International, who acts as the main contractor for IPI.

The first protest of the year commenced on April 14, 2017, with 50 illegal Chinese workers marching in Garapan, demanding that they be paid, be repatriated, and be reimbursed the amount they paid in recruitment fees. Two weeks later, on May 1, 2017, the protesters once again rallied anew, this time with even more people going against Gold Mantis. It was reported that there were 91 workers under Gold Mantis that were asked to stop working and were docked pay. On the early hours of May 10, 2017, it was reported that Gold Mantis and the U.S. Department of Labor struck a deal, which the former would shoulder the expenses of the workers’ repatriation. Each worker was paid from $10,000 to $20,000, depending on the wages owed them.

Another protest occurred sometime in June 2017. This time, the workers of the other three contractors came out in protest. A total of 43 workers claimed to not have been paid. Since June 2017 up to now, the numbers of workers have diminished; about seven workers have yet to be paid. (Erwin Encinares)

6. Education chief fired

Barely a year since her appointment as Education commissioner, Cynthia I. Deleon Guerrero was unanimously terminated by the Public School System’s Board of Education effective last Nov. 5. No explanation was provided to the public about her termination except that Board of Education chair Marylou Ada said the reasons were “personnel matters that are very confidential.”

Deleon Guerrero, as the sole employee of the CNMI Board of Education, headed the Public School System, which has over 2,000 employees and 10,000 students. Deleon Guerrero was hired in 2016. There were conjectures that discrimination may have played a role in Deleon Guerrero’s termination, which Ada was quick to deny. Glen Muña currently sits as acting education commissioner. Ada said Muña is very capable and he will sit in as acting COE until they hire a new one to fill the post. (Bea Cabrera)

7. CHCC hikes rates

The Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. increased its fees and charges for room and board, effective Oct. 4, 2017.

CHCC said the adjustment was necessary to keep up with the increasing costs of healthcare services in the CNMI. The last time the Commonwealth Health Center revised its charges for room and board dates back to 2012.

“A big factor in the increase was the lack of funding from the CNMI government. CHCC was not able to get the needed support from the Legislature to take care of the cost of healthcare for fiscal year 2018. To keep up with utility costs, we had to take care of it as the government has not fulfilled the requirement of providing those funding to CHCC,” CHCC CEO Esther Muña was quoted as saying.

Muña pointed out that the rate hikes could have been avoided. “We knew it was coming and we were prepared for it. But we waited to see if the budget appropriation [of the Legislature] was going to come and it did not,” she said. The room rates increase was authorized by the fee schedule signed by Gov. Ralph DLG Torres last Oct. 4.

For fiscal year 2018, CHCC had asked for a budget of $22 million—$16 million for indigent care from the CNMI government and $6.2 million from the federal government through Medicaid. Instead, the CNMI government allocated a budget of just $825,299 to CHCC.

Just recently, the Legislature allotted $7 million from the supplemental budget to CHCC and another $3 million was pledged for indigent care. (Bea Cabrera)

8.CJMT talks shelved, Tinian divert pushed

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, in a trip to Washington, D.C., urged U.S. Department of Defense assistant Secretary Lucian Niemeyer to shelve for the meantime talks of the Commonwealth Joint Military Training Program and to push instead for the Tinian Divert Airfield. The request was approved on Nov. 4, 2017.

According to press secretary Kevin Bautista, even prior to DOD’s official approval, it was the understanding of the Torres administration at the time that the DOD agreed with Torres’ position on the matter.

On Oct. 31, 2017, the Commonwealth Ports Authority board of directors unanimously approved the U.S. Air Force’s layout plan for the Tinian divert airfield. (Erwin Encinares)

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