USCIS Immigration System is a Huge Mess in the CNMI

May 26, 2016

It was clear that the federal CNMI-only immigration system had serious flaws from soon after it was implemented. Now that the program is coming to a close, a humanitarian crisis looms.

The USCIS imposed cap of 12,999 CW permits for 2016. It was reached this month, meaning that no more nonresident workers can be hired or renewed this year. That includes nonresident workers whose permits expire later this year. Many of them have lived and worked in the CNMI for 15 or more years.

From the Marianas Variety:
CW-1 workers has already been reached for fiscal year 2016, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will reject CW-1 petitions received after May 5, 2016 and those that request an employment start date before Oct. 1, 2016. 
This includes CW-1 petitions for extensions of stay subject to the CW-1 cap. The filing fees will be returned with any rejected CW-1 petition, USCIS said in a media release. 
“If an extension petition is rejected, then the beneficiaries listed on that petition are not permitted to work beyond the validity period of the previously approved petition, Therefore, affected beneficiaries, including any CW-2 derivative family members of a CW-1 nonimmigrant, must depart the CNMI within 10 days after the CW-1 validity period has expired, unless they have some other authorization to remain under U.S. immigration law.” 
Several private-sector employers are expected to be significantly affected by the USCIS announcement.
I spoke to one nonresident worker yesterday by phone. He has lived in the CNMI for 19 years and is beyond despondent and panicked. His permit expires later this year and cannot be renewed because the cap has been met. He stated he will have to leave within ten days of the expiration and has absolutely no home to return to in his home country of Bangladesh. His family is here under separate permits.

Nineteen years is not a temporary gig. Thousands of nonresidents who are impacted by this crisis are truly de facto citizens. They have lived and worked in the CNMI most of their adult lives.

CNMI and U.S. leaders, politicians and officials should accept the blame for the immigration mess in the CNMI. The failure to provide a status provision in the original law was the first huge mistake.  Everyone knew that there was not an adequate workforce to replace the tens of thousand of nonresident workers that fueled the CNMI economy.

In the end, selfishness and prejudice won over common sense and the ethical choice. H.R. 3079 passed in 2008 becoming U.S. P. L. 110-229, the Consolidated Natural Resources Act (CNRA). It passed without providing a logical provision for status for the legal, longterm nonresident workers. (Read more about the background and mistakes in this older post.)

There was however, a provision in the bill mandating that the U.S. Department of Interior make a recommendation to the U.S. Congress regarding a secure status for the nonresident workers. The 2010 DOI Report on Status for the CNMI Nonresidents that was mandated in the CNRA, P.L. 110-229 stated:
"Consistent with the goals of comprehensive immigration reform, we recommend that the Congress consider permitting alien workers who have lawfully resided in the CNMI for a minimum period of five years to apply for long-term status under the immigration and nationality laws of the United States."
This recommendation provided the perfect opportunity to correct past mistakes and enact critical legislation. A bill would have passed if DOI, Deputy Secretary of Insular Affairs Tony Babauta pushed it and if Delegate Gregorio Sablan had introduced legislation to make the recommendation law. At that time President Obama had both a Democratic House and Senate, so the passage was certain. As often is the case, the CNMI leaders and politicians put their own political careers ahead of justice, democratic principles and humanitarian needs. No bill was introduced.

But enough with looking backwards. What can be done today? The CNMI leaders could introduce legislation to grant temporary CNMI-status to the legal, longterm nonresidents –those who have worked in the CNMI five or more years. This would benefit the CNMI business owners, economy and the nonresidents until a more permanent solution is achieved.

Additionally, Delegate Sablan could introduce legislation that would grant green cards and a pathway to citizenship to all legal, longterm nonresident workers. For decades U.S. officials and members of Congress have told me, "Committees bow to the wishes of the territories' delegates." There certainly is nothing to lose by trying.

Discussions with the Obama Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, USCIS must take place immediately to avert an economic and humanitarian crisis.

One thing is for sure, the CNMI's Government's never ending search to find qualified U.S. citizens to replace the workers is futile.  There just are not enough locals to fill the thousands of positions and no amount of recruiting will lure enough U.S. citizens to relocate from the mainland to work for poverty-level wages.

Nonresident Worker Bill Passes CNMI House

April 1, 2016

The CNMI House unanimously passed a bill to charge nonresident workers $50 for an identification card.

Nonresident workers in the CNMI are regulated by USCIS, not the CNMI Department of Labor. They already pay excessive fees for their U.S. permits.

This appears to be another scheme to make money off the backs of the legal, nonresident workers who make up about 90% of the CNMI's private labor force. The collected funds are to be used "to enforce rules and regulations pertaining to non-immigrant workers."

I doubt that this bill is even constitutional. Shame on every lawmaker who voted for this bill.

The Marianas Variety quoted comments I made in 2010 when the legislature proposed this scheme and the same remarks apply today:
In March 2010, human rights advocate and former Rota educator Wendy Doromal criticized CNMI Public Law 17-1 for its provision that required foreigners to register with DOL. 
She said it was a blatant attempt by the CNMI government to maintain control over “the disenfranchised underclass.” 
“They want to continue to fill their coffers on the backs of the foreign contract workers, their families and other foreign nationals,” she said referring to the CNMI government. 
She noted that since Nov. 28, 2009, the federal government has had authority over CNMI immigration and the foreign national workforce, not the commonwealth government or its Department of Labor. 
She said there was no other local or state government in the U.S. that required foreign nationals to have an identification card, adding that those powers fall under federal law.

USCIS Finalizes Rule Allowing Grace Period for CW-1 Permit Renewals

January 2016

USCIS published the final rule that allows the CNMI's  CW-1 nonresident workers to continue working during a 240-day grace period as long as the application for the new permit was submitted before the old one expired.

Under current regulations the nonresident workers, who make up a majority of the CNMI's private sector workforce, must stop working the day their CW-1 permits expires. The law has had a devastating effect on businesses, employees and the economy with USCIS taking months to process the routine renewals applications.

The rule was proposed on May 12, 2014, but was not signed and posted in the Federal Register until January 15, 2016. According to the Federal Registry,  the final rule goes into effect on February 16, 2016. From the final rule:
In this final rule, DHS also amends its regulations to authorize continued employment for up to 240 days for H-1B1, principal E-3, and CW-1 nonimmigrant workers whose status has expired, provided that the petitioner timely filed the requests for extensions of stay with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Such amendment will minimize the potential for employment disruptions for U.S. employers of H-1B1, principal E-3, and CW-1 nonimmigrant workers.
Congressman Gregorio C. Sablan has been urging USCIS to clear the backlog of unprocessed CW-1 permits for months. Over 2,800 permits had been back-logged since last year.  Last week Congressman Sablan visited the USCIS California Office where the CNMI's permits are processed to urge the clearing of the backlog.

The rule is another welcome band aid for a broken immigration system. The most sensible permanent fix that would help to solve the CNMI's skilled worker shortage would be to grant all legal long-term nonresident workers permanent residency status with a pathway to citizenship.

CUC Did Not File Renewals Until Days Before the Deadline

January 7, 2016

U.S. District Court for the NMI Judge Ramona Manglona rejected CUC's request for a temporanry restraining order that would have allowed 18 skilled CUC workers to continue working while their petition for renewal was processed by USCIS.

The lawsuit filed by CUC suggested that the USCIS delayed the processing of the permits, when in reality the permits were submitted on December 28, 2015 only days before the December 31, 2015 deadline.

How infuriating this must be to the employees who must trust that their employers will process their renewals in a responsible timely manner. They are out of work (and pay) because the employer waited until the last minute to submit their CW-1 applications. The action also does not reflect much concern for the residents of the CNMI who depend on the utility services.

The engineers and other skilled workers who have been employed by CUC for years and even decades should have been petitioned under H-1B Visa program so that they could earn a pathway to citizenship. The CUC owes them that much for their years of dedicated employment.

Commonwealth Utilities Commission and 19 Employees Sue USCIS

January 4, 2016

The Commonwealth Utilities Commission and 19 nonresident workers have sued Jeh Charles Johnson Secretary of Homeland Security, Sarah Saldana, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Leon Rodriquez, Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The ten-page complaint states that 33 essential CUC employees are skilled nonresident workers with CW-1 permits. Nineteen of those employees had permits that expired on December 31, 2015. CUC filed renewal applications for all of them in a timely manner. However, USCIS failed to act on the applications. By law the nonresident workers cannot continue to work after the expiration of their CW permits.

The defendants call for the USCIS to enforce  the U.S. Administrative Procedures Act and compel the agency to act on the workers' CW petitions.

CUC attorney James Sirok is also asking the District Court to grant a declaratory ruling that would allow the defendants to work while a decision is being made on their applications for CW permit renewal.

The lawsuit also asks the court to "grant such other and further relief as this Court deems equitable, just, and proper."

USCIS should be held accountable. The federal agency should have to pay any wages that the employees lost due to the federal agency's failure to process the CW renewals.  Businesses, employees and their families should not have to suffer because USCIS employees did not act on petitions that were filed within the specified time period.

The complaint also clarifies the importance of maintaining CUC's skilled workforce:
In order for the Utility to operate and provide utility services to the CNMI and its populace, it hires employees to perform various essential functions and duties which in turn results in the generation and distribution of power and water throughout the islands of Saipan Tinian and Rota and the movement and elimination of wastewater  and sewer elements on these islands.
No business should have to cease operating because a regulating agency is slow to act. When a shut down impacts a territory's entire population, it is especially inexcusable. All nonresident employees extending their CW permits should be able to work until a decision to deny or approve the renewal is made.

Governor Ralph Torres has also informed President Obama of the economic damage caused by the delay in processing the CNMI's CW permits.

The USCIS has been not given the proper attention to the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program. Instead of sending CW renewal applications to California to be processed as has been the practice, they should be processed in the CNMI so employers and employees can better monitor the status of their permits. A fully staffed USCIS Office should be set up immediately to address the critical needs of both nonresident workers and their employers and to prevent further economic loss to all parties.

Businesses Waiting for USCIS To Approve Timely CW Applications

January 2, 2016

The incompetence of USCIS in processing CW permits has impacted some businesses and about 800 nonresident workers in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

The Saipan Tribune reported that Truong's, Saipan's only Vietnamese restaurant was forced to close because of CW renewals were not processed. Other affected businesses include Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and the Maraina Resort and Spa.

The businesses met required deadlines to submit renewals for the nonresidents employees, yet permits that were set to expire on December 31, 2015 were not processed by USCIS by the deadline. By law, any nonresident worker whose permit is not renewed must stop working by the expiration date.

The idea that a person waiting for a CW permit to be renewed should stop working until the permit is in hand is unreasonable.  This bureaucratic system does not consider that the businesses need the workers to stay open to make a profit and the workers need their jobs to survive. Has the USCIS  considered that people will go without food and be put in positions where they could lose their homes because the bureaucratic agency could not process their papers in a timely manner?

Any system where people are regarded as faceless labor units is not a humane one. The system needs to be reformed. A grace period allowing CW workers to continue working for a specified period of time after the official expiration date of the permit would be one humane solution. Establishing a fully staffed USCIS Office on Saipan and processing permits there may be another solution.

The Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands requested assistance from Representative Kilili Sablan regarding the non-processing of the permits.

Today is International Migrants Day!

December 18, 2015

"On International Migrants Day, let us commit to coherent, comprehensive and human-rights based responses guided by international law and standards and a shared resolve to leave no one behind." 
 Ban Ki-moon Message for International Migrants Day

Thinking of all the amazing workers in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and sending my best wishes to you all.

18 December 2015Secretary-General’s Message for 2015 

2015 will be remembered as a year of human suffering and migrant tragedies. Over the past 12 months, more than 5,000 women, men and children lost their lives in search of protection and a better life. Tens of thousands more have been exploited and abused by human traffickers. And millions have been made into scapegoats and become the targets of xenophobic policies and alarmist rhetoric. 

But 2015 was also a year in which the global community underscored the important contribution of migrants to sustainable development. With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, world leaders vowed to protect the labour rights of migrant workers, combat transnational criminal human trafficking networks, and promote well-regulated migration and mobility. By addressing root causes, the 2030 Agenda also seeks to tackle the development, governance and human rights challenges that are driving people to flee their homes in the first place.

The world urgently needs to build upon these efforts with a new global compact on human mobility based on better cooperation among countries of origin, transit and destination, with enhanced responsibility sharing, and full respect of the human rights of migrants, regardless of their status.

We must expand safe channels for regular migration, including for family reunification, labour mobility at all skill levels, greater resettlement opportunities, and education opportunities for children and adults. I also urge all countries to sign and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; only one-fourth of UN Member States have done so.

These principles and ideas will be part of the implementation of the roadmap to address the large movements of migrants and refugees that I have presented to the General Assembly.

 On International Migrants Day, let us commit to coherent, comprehensive and human-rights based responses guided by international law and standards and a shared resolve to leave no one behind.