Gov. Ralph DLG Torres is set to leave for Washington, D.C. in the third week of February to attend the National Governors Association’s winter meeting and, at the same time, meet with some federal officials to talk about the H-2B program. The NGA meeting is set from Feb. 22 to 25.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently removed the Philippines from its list of countries whose workers are eligible for H-2B visas.
That visa program is usually used for temporary non-agricultural workers like those in the construction trades.
Both employers and construction firms in the CNMI and Guam have been using H-2B visas to hire construction workers.
Both U.S. territories have been experiencing a boom in construction projects and other development. Military-funded projects in Guam, however, are exempted from the H-2B ban, with Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero already requesting DHS to allow Guam to continue hiring skilled workers from the Philippines.
Torres said that he and Leon Guerrero have been communicating ever since DHS and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released the information about the one-year ban. Both their respective chiefs of staff—Angel Demapan and Tony Babauta—are also in the loop.
“Governor Lou and I have the same stance when it comes to the H-2B visa program. We [CNMI and Guam] have the same critical needs for workers, not just for military purposes but also outside the [military] fence,” said Torres.
Torres plans to meet with Leon Guerrero at the NGA conference to further discuss their plans on how to approach the issue. He said that he’s hoping to meet with several DHS officials while also in D.C.
Demapan, in a separate interview with the Saipan Tribune, said they have been comparing notes with Guam when it comes to the H-2B issue. “We want to look at the issues that are affecting the CNMI, then obviously we’re going to also look at the issues affecting Guam.”
“And on those have common or of mutual concerns between the CNMI and Guam, that’s something that we can consider to take a joint effort on the issue. We are also arranging meetings with the governor to discuss USCIS issues. The NGA is coming up, so we hope to use that time to meet.”
Demapan said the recent federal government shutdown may be the reason why USCIS has not yet released the new regulations for the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act of 2018, which was signed by President Donald Trump on July 24, 2018. The Act called for the regulations to be issued within 180 days; that’s by Jan. 20, 2019.
“We are waiting for when are they [USCIS] are going to issue the regulations. We know that there was supposed to be a deadline to promulgate the regulations but, because of the shutdown, that pushed some things back.
“We’re waiting to find out what’s the timeline now for the regulations. Because we definitely want some certainty and stability for our employers and employees here.”
CNMI employers and their workers have been waiting for the new regulations, with the delay becoming difficult for businesses to come up with their own long-term plans when it comes to their laborers and operations.