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.

Discussions on Phase Out of CW Workers

October 23, 2015

In recent weeks Federal and CNMI officials have been issuing statements concerning the CW Program, which is scheduled to be phased out in three years.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services lowered the cap for fiscal year 2016 to 12,999, which is 1,000 fewer than the 2015 limit of 13,999. The CW Program started out in 2009 with a cap of 22,417, the number of workers that had been permitted by the CNMI prior to the extension of U.S. immigration law.

As 2019 approaches there is more talk of how the CNMI desperately needs to continue a 'special for us' foreign worker program to maintain a stable economy. The talk appears to center on repeating past mistakes. The solution most often spoken of is to pass legislation that would allow the CNMI to continue to cycle foreign workers in and out of the CNMI like dehumanized labor units.

If the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, P.L. 110-229, had been followed as intended there would be no need for this discussion. The stable workforce that the CNMI is forever seeking would have long been in place.

The CNRA passed in 2008, mandated that the Department of Interior prepare a report for Congress with a recommendation on the status of the CNMI's nonresidents. The 2010 DOI report 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."
Had the Department of Interior, CNMI and Federal leaders acted in 2010 on that recommendation and pushed for legislation that would have granted the legal, long-term nonresidents a pathway to citizenship, this problem of a stable workforce would have been solved. A skilled and dedicated workforce would be in place today. Instead we hear the same phrases taken from the decades-long conversation of how to continue a program where foreign workers are regarded as replaceable, disposal labor units rather than as valued future citizens.

Governor Eloy Inos has called for 902 talks to discuss the deadline for the end of the CW Program, which will zero out foreign workers. From the Marianas Variety:
In his Oct. 2 letter to Obama, Inos expressed concern about the expiration in Dec. 2019 of the federal CW program that allows the islands to hire nonresident workers without going through the more expensive and restrictive H-visa process.
Has the governor considered that if all of the legal longtime foreign workers were granted green cards the cost to hire workers would be zero?

Esther Kia’aina, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas met with the governor earlier this month. She stated:
“DC is a lonely world,” Kia’aina said. “We cannot be your only advocates. …It’s critically important for the White House and other federal agencies to know the people and what the government of the Marianas is facing at this time.” 
“It is the transition to a tourism-driven economy, and the potential of proposed federal activities that have been of grave concern to the people. And it also includes the looming deadline of 2019—an absolute deadline. “Prior to last November, it was not absolute. You have an absolute deadline come Dec. 31 in 2019; the CW workers will be zeroed out. That should be, I think, on top of the mind for everybody.”
Why isn't Kia'aina pushing for a stable workforce; for green cards for the legal, long-term foreign workers who have been valuable, upstanding community members for decades? The Department of Insular Affairs may benefit by looking at the whole picture and listening to the voices of all of the people who have called the CNMI home over the last few turbulent decades.

The Saipan Tribune quoted Delegate Gregorio Sablan's press release:
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-Saipan), in a statement yesterday, said that lowering the CW cap is a “call for more U.S. workers,” noting that this means “employers must continue to find more ways to hire U.S. workers, if growth is to continue.
Since 2009 when the CW Program was initiated almost half of the private work force made up of the foreign workers who lived and worked in the CNMI for decades have left for greener pastures or returned to their homelands. The stress of the visa renewal process,  the uncertainty of job security, and the unlikely chance that they will ever get improved status has driven many foreign workers from the CNMI. Some of the luckier ones I keep in touch with have landed secure jobs in Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. mainland -all with a pathway to citizenship.

It is amazing that federal officials, leaders and policy makers continue to support the CNMI's mantra, "Poor us, we need help to keep a workforce made up of disenfranchised, foreign workers" when the solution is obvious. Give the legal, long-term foreign workers who make up the vast majority of the private workforce a pathway to citizenship.