USCIS lowers CW cap by 1,000

Drop in CW cap underscores need for ‘deep look’ at planned development

The federal government announced yesterday a 1,000-count cut in the number of contract workers allowed in the CNMI, a move seen by business leaders as troubling given that the projected need for labor to meet multi-billion dollar projects in the CNMI far exceeds the number of needed workers projected and on the ground.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services set yesterday the annual limit for CW permits for fiscal year 2016 at 12,999, a drop of one thousand from last fiscal year’s 13,999 cap.

There is a reported near 11,000 CW workers in the CNMI right now.

The cap set yesterday was an excepted drop mandated by federal law. However, the law does not mandate a specific amount in the reduction, according to the Department of Homeland Security. They said the caps would be reasonably calculated to reduce the number of CW workers by the end of the program in 2019, but also doing it in consideration of its effect on continued economic growth in the CNMI that may result in the need for more CW workers, according to a pre-publication notice released yesterday.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-Saipan), in a statement yesterday, said that lowering the CW cap is a “call for more U.S. workers,” noting that this means “employers must continue to find more ways to hire U.S. workers, if growth is to continue.”

Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Alex Sablan said that losing that 1,000 CWs is not welcome.

“When we have roughly six large developments right now, [the drop] is not a good thing…We’ve made it very clear that we don’t have sufficient local workforce and a sufficient CW workforce or national workforce. We actually need more workers for all of what is being planned through economic development through tourism and casino gaming and hotel development,” Sablan said.

Best Sunshine International, Ltd. executives, for one, disclosed yesterday ambitious plans to build a kilometer-long mall strip, the world’s largest water park, and thousands of hotel rooms in Marpi. That would require over 10,000 workers, executives said.

The Chamber president said the government keeps handing out permits to build but the CNMI is not stopping to figure out if it has enough personnel or enough CW permits.

“The economy is growing. And we know we have a contract with Best Sunshine for 2,000 rooms [in original plans]. They have already announced they need 5,000 workers. We currently have somewhere in the neighborhood of 11,000 workers in the CW program today and they need 5,000 workers and so we are obviously well short.”

“Many companies have gone out to recruit in the mainland and elsewhere and it has been difficult. So our focus has got to be with foreign national workforce in Asia. And without sufficient CW visas, we can’t grow this economy,” Alex Sablan said.

Worker-to-room ratio

Alter City Group on Tinian had original plans of 2,500 rooms but that is now reportedly going to increase to 6,000. Best Sunshine is mandated to build 2,000 rooms but it also has announced an increase to 4,000 rooms, for a daunting total of 10,000 rooms. That means even if both investors went with their original proposals, that would still equal 5,000 rooms on top of the 1,600 in the Hotel Association of the Northern Marianas Islands.

According to Chamber president Sablan, if Best Sunshine were to have the average 1.2 to 1.5 worker-to-room ratio that five-star resorts boast on average, then they would need that much workers—workers that the CNMI does not have as the CW cap continues to be cut.

“Right now, with Tinian included, all proposals in play right now—we are almost 15,000 rooms total. We are talking about a five-fold increase, almost,” he said.

Right-size development

“The Chamber has been asking for a deep look at this. To take a concerted look into what the government is asking for, when we are looking at all this development, and what are the expectations going to be when we can’t fill the workforce,” Sablan said.

“What we’ve been asking for is planned development. I think we need to right-size some of these projects like the Best Sunshine project. We believe it’s way too big…because of the lack of resources—human resources, infrastructure, many different facets of our islands. We are very small and have limitations.”

Sablan said the CNMI either has to “grow the cap” or look at a reduction of development and right-sizing the development to the number of contract workers the CNMI has.

Kilili Sablan earlier said he does not know how a new CW legislation would make it through Congress, and pointing to possible negotiations between Gov. Eloy S. Inos and the White House on this issue.

“Today’s moderate reduction by USCIS reflects the agency’s understanding that the need for labor to develop the Northern Marianas economy may grow and that there continues to be a need for access to foreign workers to accommodate that growth and current economic activity,” Kilili Sablan said in his statement.

“USCIS has taken a reasonable approach consistent with the requirement set out in the Consolidated Natural Resources Act that federal immigration be implemented in a way that minimizes adverse effects and maximizes the potential for future growth.

“Today’s action, however, also reminds us that the number of CW workers will continue to decrease over the next four years and that everyone in the Marianas—business, government, and the educational system—will have to work overtime to replace this foreign labor with U.S. workers or with foreign workers who have some status other than CW. That means workers with H or other employment-based visas. That means workers from the Freely Associated States, who have the ability to immigrate to and live in the Northern Marianas,” Kilili Sablan said.

The Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 extended U.S. immigration law to the Northern Marianas and provided the special CW category of foreign workers for the islands during an initial transition period of five years, which was extended through 2019 in December last year by the enactment of Public Law 113-235.

In 2009, the CW cap was at 22,417, based on the number of workers that had been permitted by the CNMI prior to the extension of U.S. immigration law.

By 2013, USCIS officials testified to Congress that the number of CW workers was down to 10,071.

Earlier this year, the Commonwealth government reported to U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez an unemployment rate of 16.8 percent in 2014, with 4,674 persons out of work.

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

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