Dec 17, 2017 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Dec 12, 2017

More work, fewer workers

Deadline looms for Northern Mariana Islands

ONCE the clock turns 12 midnight on December 31, 2019, a cloud of uncertainty would hang in the air in the Northern Mariana Islands. That is the expiration date of the CNMI - only transitional worker nonimmigrant visa program, better known as “CW-1.” The CW-1 program allows eligible foreign laborers to work in the CNMI while giving their employers ample time to change some of their hiring practices toward acquiring more from the local workforce or transitioning their guest workers to suitable US work visas if ever they want to keep their services.

The program, a unique work visa classification from other US states and territories, encourages businesses and other companies to employ more local residents or US citizens, eventually allowing foreign workers to find alternative immigration status before the transition period ends. It was established through the 2008 Consolidated Natural Resources Act or Public Law 110-229 that puts a cap on the number of foreign workers that decreases every year until it reaches zero after 2019.

The foreign worker permit system was only a five-year program that began in 2009 and should have ended in 2014 but the US Citizenship and Immigration Service granted the CNMI government another five-year extension that’s why the 2019 deadline. Governor Ralph Torres, however, along with CNMI Delegate Gregorio Sablan and the business community—

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I n yet another first in its history, the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is headed for three elections in a single month in November with a recordbreaking 18,000 registered voters. Election issues are centred on fixing the CNMI’s immigration, stabilising the utilities and hospital services, prolonging the retirement system’s lifespan, and fully reviving the tourism economy amid a US$3.14 billion exclusive Saipan casino to be built starting this year. The CNMI will hold its general elections on November 4, 2014 to elect the governor and lieutenant governor, a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. Congress, members of the CNMI House of Representatives and CNMI Senate, mayors for the three islands, municipal councils and for the first time, an attorney general.

There are 99 candidates for 44 positions. Governor Eloy S. Inos also declared a special election to coincide with the November 4 general elections, saving the government nearly $100,000 just by holding the two on the same day. That special election will fill a vacancy in the Senate, created by a constitutionallyrequired resignation of a senator representing Saipan after he was certified as a candidate for lieutenant governor. There are three candidates for this special election.

Besides declaring a special election, the governor also signed on the same day a bill that prohibits a person from running for more than one public office in a general, local or special election. “We find this bill to be an appropriate public policy and I therefore approve it into law,” the governor said before signing the measure. A third election, which is a gubernatorial runoff race, is also “highly likely” in midNovember when none of the four gubernatorial teams gets at least 50 percent plus one of the votes cast during the general elections, Commonwealth Election Commission executive director Robert A. Guerrero said. Governor Inos himself is seeking election in November under the Republican Party.

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Russians, Chinese target visa loop-holes

the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands has received a five-year extension of a critical programme allowing it continued access to some 10,000 foreign workers up to 2019 for its recovering economy. But it still faces other key immigration issues, most of which are waiting United States Congress actions. Among these issues is the CNMI’s request to extend its exemption from accepting asylum applicants beyond January 1, 2015. Governor Eloy S. Inos and the CNMI’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), said allowing the asylum provision of U.S. law to apply to the CNMI starting in 2015 would open the floodgates for asylum seekers coming to the U.S. territory as tourists.

The governor and the delegate are particularly concerned about tourists from China who, under a U.S. Department of Homeland Security programme that has helped boost the CNMI’s tourism numbers since 2009, are allowed visa-free entry to the Commonwealth. Chinese and Russian tourists can stay in the CNMI for up to 45 days without being required to secure a U.S. visa. In past years, most applicants for refugee protection were from China.

They claimed they would be persecuted or killed for political or religious reasons if they were sent back to China. Moreover, tourists from China have been engaging in so-called “birth tourism” in which a pregnant woman enters the CNMI as a tourist for the purpose of giving birth to an automatic U.S. citizen child. Allowing the CNMI to start accepting asylum applicants could also catch the ire of the Chinese government, which could pull the plug not only on airlines servicing the China-CNMI route but also disallow its people from traveling to this U.S. territory, officials said.

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the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands has received a five-year extension of a critical programme allowing it continued access to some 10,000 foreign workers up to 2019 for its recovering economy. But it still faces other key immigration issues, most of which are waiting United States Congress actions. Among these issues is the CNMI’s request to extend its exemption from accepting asylum applicants beyond January 1, 2015. Governor Eloy S. Inos and the CNMI’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), said allowing the asylum provision of U.S. law to apply to the CNMI starting in 2015 would open the floodgates for asylum seekers coming to the U.S. territory as tourists. The governor and the delegate are particularly concerned about tourists from China who, under a U.S. Department of Homeland Security programme that has helped boost the CNMI’s tourism numbers since 2009, are allowed visa-free entry to the Commonwealth.

Chinese and Russian tourists can stay in the CNMI for up to 45 days without being required to secure a U.S. visa. In past years, most applicants for refugee protection were from China. They claimed they would be persecuted or killed for political or religious reasons if they were sent back to China. Moreover, tourists from China have been engaging in so-called “birth tourism” in which a pregnant woman enters the CNMI as a tourist for the purpose of giving birth to an automatic U.S. citizen child. Allowing the CNMI to start accepting asylum applicants could also catch the ire of the Chinese government, which could pull the plug not only on airlines servicing the China-CNMI route but also disallow its people from traveling to this U.S. territory, officials said.

At least three bills pending in U.S. Congress seek to extend not only the CNMI’s exemption from accepting asylum applications, but also extend a CNMI-only investor programme that allows it to keep 261 of its foreign investors. With such extension, the E-2C investor visa programme will expire on December 31, leaving hundreds of foreign and U.S. workers without jobs as a result of these businesses’ forced exit from the CNMI. The same bills also extend the CNMI and Guam’s exemption from the U.S. national cap on the number of H visas or temporary foreign worker visas. 

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US Labour Secretary has until July 4

“It will be a disaster,” said Juan T. Guerrero, general manager of the largest and oldest bakery in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, as he ponders on the fate of this U.S. territory if and when some 10,000 foreign workers that the local economy has relied upon are sent back to their country of origin on December 31, 2014. Many say such en masse exit would plunge the CNMI into an economic abyss that’s much worse than it has ever seen.

That’s because the existing U.S. citizen or local labour pool is simply not enough to help the economy grow, let alone survive between now and the end of 2014. “Even restaurant food that community members have come to love will never feature again if we lose our valuable foreign chefs and cooks,” said Guerrero, a former president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organisation in the CNMI. Still, there are some who want to send foreign workers packing, except for critically needed ones. If the transitional foreign worker programme is not extended, the CNMI would lose thousands of its relied-upon professionals and skilled workers – from registered nurses to teachers, accountants, architects, engineers, reporters, technicians, mechanics, masons, plumbers, house workers, care givers, cooks, farmers, fishermen and beauticians, to name a few. Guerrero said it is nearly impossible to train or educate anyone to become a nurse in less than a year, for example, or to become a certified teacher in just six months.

U.S. Labour Secretary Thomas Perez has until July 4 to decide whether to grant the CNMI’s request to extend the transitional immigration programme for five years or up to 2019. But the mixed signals from the U.S. Department of Labour since 2013 continue to cause uncertainty among CNMI employers asking whether they could still keep their businesses open without enough and qualified workers. Foreign workers in the CNMI are at a loss whether they would still have a job after 2014. Many existing businesses and prospective investors are holding off expansion or new investment plans without knowing whether they would have enough workers in just half a year from now.

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