Time ticks for Marianas to zero out foreign workers

It’s taking a toll on local economy

Foreign workers…will have to depart the CNMI by January 1, 2015 if the US Secretary of Labor decides not to extend the federal immigration transitional period beyond December 31, 2014.-- Haidee Eugenio

If and when the United States secretary of Labor decides not to extend the federal immigration transition period beyond Dec. 31, 2014 in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), then the foreign worker population is supposed to be zeroed out by Jan 1, 2015.

This means every foreign worker—from nurses to teachers, certified public accountants, engineers, architects, waiters, hotel employees, house helpers, construction workers, farmers and even journalists—will have to depart the CNMI by Jan. 1, 2015.

For many in the CNMI, less than two years is too short a time to replace with US workers the more than 12,000 skilled and professional foreign workers that help run virtually all aspects and levels of the local economy.

The CNMI government, private sector employers, foreign workers and local residents all point to the far-reaching negative impacts of losing these foreign workers, plunging the local economy back to its worst state. However, they differ in their recommendations how to prevent losing these foreign workers–extend the transition period and grant improved US immigration status to long-time foreign workers, among other options.

The only major industry in the CNMI—tourism—is on the upswing so losing access to a skilled, educated alien workforce mostly from Asian countries such as the Philippines and China would be catastrophic.

Press secretary Angel Demapan said CNMI Governor Benigno R. Fitial’s administration has been consistent in its call for an extension of the transition period so that the islands would have continued access to these foreign workers, while at the same time the CNMI continues to prepare and train its local workforce to take over the jobs currently held by foreigners.

US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano capped the number of foreign workers in the CNMI at 15,000 for fiscal 2013. 

The federalization law requires that this number be brought to “zero” after 2014.

In fiscal 2012, the cap was 22,416. However, DHS received only 12,247 filings as of late last year—or 11,927, taking into account 320 denials at the time, which DHS rounded to the nearest thousand or 12,000.

DHS then added an additional 25 percent to the 12,000 “to accommodate possible economic growth that might lead to a need for additional CW workers for a total of 15,000,” Napolitano said.

This number of transitional workers under the Commonwealth-only worker or CW, program, have been available beginning Oct. 1, 2012.

“They have 3,000 [additional CW] workers, that’s a huge number of workers for tourism,” DHS’ US Citizenship and Immigration Services Honolulu district director David G. Gulick said, at the last general membership meeting of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the largest business group in the CNMI with some 170 members.

Extend transition period’

Richard Pierce, executive director of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, said a 33 percent decrease in the limit on the number of foreign workers allowed in the CNMI reflects not only severe job losses in the CNMI but also means there’s a continuing need for skilled labor that cannot be met within the local population. This is a strong argument for extending the transition period, said Pierce.

He said DHS would be negligent in complying with the caution expressed within the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, the law that placed CNMI immigration under US  federal control, “where care is to be exercised in protecting the CNMI economy dependent upon those foreign national employees, if it were not to extend the transition period.”

As of January 2013, there is no telling whether the transition period will be extended beyond 2014. 

Nhorleen B. Lilles, a 31-year-old graphic designer from the Philippines who has so far spent seven years in the CNMI, said many long-time foreign workers have already packed their bags.

“Whether the government admits it or not, these educated foreign workers cannot easily be replaced, and it’s going to take its toll, if not already. 

In the current state that we are in, it’s not only the foreign workers who are having a hard time, but the employers as well. In reality, the businesses and the economy are the ones suffering the most,” Lilles told ISLANDS BUSINESS.

Improved immigration status

Worker groups and their supporters continue to press the US government to grant U.S. immigration status to long-time, legal foreign workers in the CNMI—many of them have already spent most of their working lives of 10, 15, 20 or more years in the Commonwealth.

In other US jurisdictions and states, five-year legal work gives foreign workers an opportunity to be granted permanent residency or “green card” leading to US citizenship. Because of the CNMI’s unique relationship with the United States, this is not the case. 

It was only in November 2009 that the CNMI’s immigration came under U.S. federal control as a result of a May 2008 law that also gave the CNMI a non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives. The CNMI’s full transition to U.S. federal immigration won’t happen until Jan. 1, 2015, but the US Labor secretary can extend the ongoing transition period.

Bonifacio Sagana, president of the worker group Dekada Movement, said granting improved status is a “more humane, more effective” way of stabilizing the tourism-based CNMI workforce and economy.

“Extending the transition period will only prolong the suffering and agony of a lot of foreign workers but also result in the continued destabilization of the workforce,” he said.

He added that had the US and CNMI government considered granting improved immigration status to long-term workers years and decades ago, “the workforce would be in a much stable condition.”

Lilles, for her part, said she feels deeply for foreign workers, especially those who have spent most of their lives in the CNMI and have considered it their second home, if and when foreign workers are zeroed out after 2014.

“Most will be left with nothing much to compensate for years of services rendered on these islands,” she added.

Sagana and Rabby Syed, president of the United Workers Movement-CNMI, said the CNMI failed for years and decades to train their residents to run the local economy, another five years of that “won’t make a difference” should the transition period be extended.

But addressing the issue of immigration and its socio-economic impacts may have to wait as CNMI politics has broken new grounds. 

The new CNMI House of Representatives is about to impeach the governor, after which the process moves to the CNMI Senate for trial. If and when the Legislature succeeds, Fitial will go down in history as the first governor in the CNMI and in any US territory to be impeached and convicted.

Immigration reform

Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP), shortly after he was sworn into office in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 3, said he will introduce a better and more inclusive version of his immigration bill to include a fifth group of nonresidents eligible to be granted a CNMI-only resident status. 

Such could be drafted to provide pathway to US citizenship as part of a national immigration reform under President Barack Obama’s second term, he said.

Wendy Doromal, a former CNMI teacher and now a Florida-based educator and human rights activist, said if Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio is true to his word—planning a comprehensive immigration reform that includes pathways to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented (illegal) aliens in the US, “what more for the 12,000 or so legal aliens in the CNMI?”

“With the CNMI Temporary Guest Worker Program ending up being more of a program of flaws and harm rather than a program of promise and help, the time to protect the status of the legal, long-term foreign workers is now. 

“There is promise in Rep. Sablan’s H.R. 1466 if his suggested 5th category would include legal, long-term foreign workers who do not have a U.S. citizen spouse or child,” Doromal said in her blog—Unheard No More—that has become a resource for non-resident workers and others in the CNMI. 

She said President Obama could also enact an executive order to protect the CNMI’s legal foreign workers “just as he did for the Dreamers.”

“At this point, I would support granting the legal, long-term CNMI aliens a temporary ‘safety’ status until a decent bill granting them the well-deserved pathway to citizenship could pass,” she added.

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