Wait is over for federal worker rule but worries persist

Posted on Dec 30 2011
By Haidee V. Eugenio

Three years since the signing of the federalization law, two years since the actual federal takeover of local immigration and after a few false alarms, the final rule governing transitional foreign workers in the CNMI was finally released on Sept. 7, 2011, but problems related to its implementation continue to persist today.

Employers, employees, and the entire CNMI were plunged into a world of uncertainty when the final worker rule took time to be released.

DHS issued an interim final rule on transitional workers on Oct. 27, 2009, but Gov. Benigno R. Fitial took DHS to court to block the rule. A federal court upheld parts of the CNMI complaint and sent the regulations back to DHS with instructions to follow proper administrative procedures and reissue the rule.

It took DHS’ U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services almost two years to issue the final worker rule. The rule was welcomed with a mixture of relief and anxiety.

Employers had up to Nov. 28, 2011, to petition their foreign workers for a Commonwealth-only worker, or CW, so these workers could continue working while waiting for a decision on their petitions. CNMI-issued umbrella permits expired on Nov. 27, so only federal permits or status were allowed after that date.

Nov. 28 came and went but a previously feared mass exodus didn’t happen. Even those foreign workers without CW petitions filed for them were able to obtain humanitarian parole, mostly expiring on Jan. 31, 2012.

And at the last minute, USCIS announced the availability of a parole that, if granted, would allow eligible foreign nationals to lawfully remain in the CNMI until Dec. 31, 2012.

Those eligible to apply for this parole were mostly covered in Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan’s H.R. 1466, which seeks a grant of “CNMI-only resident status” to four groups of people, including immediate relatives of U.S. citizens as of May 8, 2008 and continuing to be on the islands, CNMI permanent residents, those born in the CNMI between Jan. 1, 1974 and Jan. 9, 1978, and the spouses, parents or children of U.S. citizens under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

But the governor claimed he was able to block attempts to have Sablan’s HR 1466 acted on by the U.S. House of Representatives before Congress went on recess for the holidays.

Fitial is planning a lawsuit to prevent USCIS from granting one-year parole to individuals he describes as “burdens” because they are either jobless or involved in illegal jobs.

USCIS said as of Dec. 9, there were 5,380 I-129CW petitions filed covering 11,019 foreign workers. This is over 82 percent of the 13,399 estimated “potentially eligible” for CW status, based on DHS’ final rule.

There is no telling whether all or most of the over 11,000 foreign workers will be “actually granted” a CW status by Jan. 31, 2012. Foreign workers whose CW petitions are denied could face deportation.

And just when the implementation of the final worker rule isn’t problematic enough, the CNMI is faced with another set of worries, this time from a possible application of federal taxes to those previously exempted workers, specifically those from the Philippines and Korea.

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