Speaking Out for Justice In Saipan

June 18, 2016

Saipan Representative Ed Propst made a courageous and heartfelt statement about the state of the CNMI's nonresidents. May his voice be heard in Washington, D.C. Thank you, Ed.

Facebook post of Ed Propst:
I am most certain that many will use the plight of the contract worker (CW) as a campaign tool this election season. That is to be expected. I know I've been told that by publicly supporting contract workers it will hurt me and may cost me getting re-elected. That is fine with me, because the truth is, losing an election pales in comparison to losing a home, and that is what we are seeing right now with the expected exodus of 1,300 longtime workers before the end of this year. 
I am writing this right now with tears in my eyes, because I am devastated at the thought of someone as amazing as Mami Ikeda and other contributing members of our community leaving our islands for good. And "contributing members" is an understatement! I have witnessed the contributions of Mami and so many others who have given their heart and soul to our islands. 
The notion that we must have all CW's depart our islands so that we can give all these 13,000 current jobs being filled by our guest workers to our people is something I often hear, and I understand the frustration of some of our people. But please, hear me out. 
From an economic standpoint, even if we were to take every available one of our people currently on island to fill the slots of our contract workers, we still would not be able to fill every position. We have been told that there are 10,000 locals ready to fill the positions. The problem is, we currently have 12,999 current CW's, so even if that number were accurate, we would still be 2,999 people short for employment. Add to the fact that our economy is in an upswing and more jobs will open up? We are looking at adding another 1,000 to 2,000 jobs within the near future. So where will we find the additional employees to fill the 5,000 additional jobs if we were to have 10,000 of our people fill these jobs right now? Some of our people may finally return home from the mainland and elsewhere to work, but will we have 5,000 of them returning? How many of our people who have homes in the mainland right now will come back home to receive lower wages than what they are currently making in the United States? These are the questions that need to be answered. What about the skilled labor positions? Do we have enough of our people currently on island who can fill the needed skilled labor for carpenters, plumbers, accountants, welders, mechanics, nurses (50 percent of our nurses right now at CHCC are CW's by the way), chefs, and so forth? 
From a humanitarian standpoint, we are seeing long term contract workers having to pack up and leave immediately. These are long term workers who have been living here not just for one or two years, but ten, twenty, and even thirty years. Many of them living on island have children who were born here, who went to school here with our children, who graduated here, and several of whom are currently serving in our military, defending our country and commonwealth. These long term community workers have given so much to all of us, from waiting and serving and cooking for us at the restaurants, to caring for our children and our elderly as caretakers and nannies, to building our homes, our roads, our infrastructure. While we use the term contract workers, we also use the term guest workers. But we can also call them our family, which is what they are to so many of us, as they break bread with us at our homes and we at their homes, and they have become our kumpaires and kumaires, our brothers and sisters. 
There is no doubt that we must build local capacity and train our people to take on the jobs available right now. There is no doubt in my mind that we leaders of the Commonwealth must start investing in the Northern Marianas Trades Institute and other training academies and give them real money to properly train our people. But we must go beyond that. We must work on reliable and affordable transportation so that our people can be able to get to work and back, since there are so many who just cannot afford to buy cars right now. Sorry, but the illegal taxis just are not meeting the demand for transportation. 
While we work on building local capacity, we must address the shortfall right now. Today. From an economic and humanitarian standpoint, our community workers are critical to these islands. And what is even more critical is that we understand that many of these contract workers who have lived here for decades have no home to go home to, because this is and has been their home for decades. 
I know what I have said may not be politically popular and I am certain some will use what I have said in this post and other posts against me, but that is okay with me. My heart still belongs to the people of the CNMI and I have given 100% of myself while in office, but will do so even out of office. As a public servant, I have an obligation to be true to not just the people I serve, but to be true to myself. I am a public servant, one who serves EVERYONE, regardless of whether or not you are in my precinct, and regardless of whether you are a permanent resident or a guest worker. Love all, serve all. 
May God bless our beloved Commonwealth and all of the good people living on our islands. I pray for a better future for all. One heart, one love. Good night.

It Is Always the Right Time to Do the Right Thing

June 4, 2016

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” 

- John Lewis, Freedom Rider and U.S. Congressman

A recent Saipan Tribune article states that Delegate Kilili Sablan will introduce legislation to enact a ten year extension to the severely flawed CW program. The bill will call for a increase in the cap of CW to 18,000. Perpetuating a broken system will not solve the immigration problems. However, granting the legal, long-term nonresidents a pathway to U.S. citizenship would help to ensure a skilled and stable workforce.

Each time the U.S. extends this program it becomes more like the old CNMI immigration system, which regarded nonresident workers as disposable, replaceable labor units and allowed for abuses to flourish.

The only reasons advocates backed the federal takeover were to:
  • End abuses  - Not accomplished. In fact, employers still maintain power over the foreign workers by threatening them with non-renewal if they complain of late wages, unpaid overtime or other abuses. Amazingly, the Federal Government made things worse by closing the Ombudsman Office, which served as the sole place where nonresident workers could seek assistance. 
  • Phase in the U.S. immigration system - Not accomplished. We already saw one extension and another looms as Delegate Sablan and other 'leaders' are calling for a ten year extension.
  • Provide status for legal, longterm nonresidents - Not accomplished. Xenophobic politicians in Guam and the CNMI ensured that the status provision was removed from the CNRA and replaced with a provision calling for the DOI to make recommendations to Congress within 3 years of passage of the law. That 2010 DOI report recommending a pathway to citizenship was ignored. 
Sablan was quoted as saying:
“Why don’t I just go ahead and push for status like I did before? I want to but the composition of Congress has changed,” Sablan said, noting Republican ranks that have ousted its own Republicans like former Rep. Eric Cantor in primary election, and how they “kicked out” former House speaker John Boehner. “…That’s power,” Sablan said.
It is always the right time to do the right thing. We cannot wait for the composition of Congress to be aligned with our views. In fact, when there was a Democratic House and Senate early in Obama's first term no corrective action was taken. Was that not the 'right' time?

Did Susan B. Anthony wait for the 'right time' to demand women's right to vote? Did the Vietnam War protestors wait for the 'right President' to be in the White House to demand an end to the war? Did the civil rights leaders wait for the 'right composition' of Congress to favor them before they demanded equal rights?

No, because NOW is always the right time for justice to be served.

USCIS Immigration System is a Huge Mess in the CNMI

May 26, 2016

W. L. Doromal

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.