Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios said local businesses are directly impacted by the decision of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to remove the Philippines from the H-2B visa program, especially with the islands of Saipan and Tinian still recovering from two devastation brought by Super Typhoon Yutu.
Palacios said most of the construction workers in the Commonwealth are from the Philippines and they fall under a different category that is different from the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker visa or the CW-1 program.
“Having the Philippines removed from the H2B Visa Program is distressing news. This will significantly impact our islands’ recovery, as most of the construction workers are from the Philippines. Our membership has been working to comply with the federal government and has encouraged construction companies to transition their construction workers to H-2B, as these companies are not able to use the CW-1 visas for construction worker,” she said.
Palacios added that the availability of a local construction workforce had been a problem for the CNMI due to the severe impact brought by Yutu. “We also have encouraged the training of our existing U.S.-eligible workforce to take on some of these trades.”
“However, the availability and accessibility of training has also been hindered due to the typhoon, and the vast immediate need for rebuilding cannot be solved by a local workforce in a time that will not impact people’s ability to get back into safe homes.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is one of the CNMI’s federal partners in the rebuilding of the islands where they hope to strengthen local infrastructure and at the same time build typhoon-resilient houses and other structures.
Palacios said the Philippines’ removal from the H-2B program is discouraging, especially with local businesses complying with the regulations. “Our businesses have already invested a lot to comply and to have the rugs pulled under them is discouraging.”
“Construction companies will have to find other resources to meet the demands of the construction industry—a demand tenfold greater because of the typhoons which have devastated our islands.”
She added that families whose homes were destroyed by Yutu will also have a hard time getting skilled labor to either repair or rebuild their houses. “This will mostly impact middle-income families, those who had to take out [U.S. Small Business Administration] loans for their rebuilding, as they were not eligible for FEMA rebuilding assistance. Renters will also be greatly impacted, as both landlords and families will not be able to afford the little-to-no labor that will be available for non-commercial rebuilding. There will be more strains on housing, and people will be forced to live in unsafe, unsanitary, and unsecure conditions.”
Palacios said construction laborers will not also not be immediately available for local businesses to employ. “They [businesses] will also not be able to avail of construction needed to rebuild our island. This will impact our ability to attract tourists, to provide services for people who live here, and sustain our economy.
“Even if there are solutions proposed through FEMA that can assist with rebuilding for families, our businesses—especially small business owners—will not be able to avail of that solution. Construction as it stands will be nearly impossible, and there will be rippling effects on the quality of rebuilding, the availability of both low- and middle-income housing, and our ability to maintain the façade of our buildings to attract the tourism industry.”
She said that Chamber would continue to work with the local and federal government to remedy the situation. “It is difficult to imagine a situation where our economy, our homes, and our families will not be worse off because of this restriction to H2A and H2B visas from the Philippines. [The Chamber] hopes to be a good partner to both our local and federal government agencies as the community looks for a solution to our dire situation.”