July 19, 2012
The absence of a status provision in the CNRA (Consolidated Natural Resources Act) was perhaps the first bad omen. Any guest worker program that offers no pathway to citizenship is immoral and unjust. Foreigners who are recruited to fill jobs that residents cannot fill should not be treated as replaceable labor units. Foreigners who have lived and worked in a U.S. locality for years and decades should be accepted as members of the community with full economic, political and social rights. The failure of the U.S. Congress to introduce and pass legislation providing for status for the CNMI's legal, long-term foreign workers is reprehensible.
In a December 2008 Status Report submitted to House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, I wrote:
In formulating a federal guest worker program, it is imperative that the abusive policies of the CNMI Department of Labor be ended and replaced with democratic, constitutional policies and regulations that afford the alien workers justice and due process. We have witnessed three decades of abuse where nonresident workers invited to work on U.S. soil have been routinely cheated, violated, and denied justice while their employers have never been held accountable. We cannot allow the corrupt, dysfunctional, unjust CNMI system to continue under the federal name.Yet, that is exactly what is happening now. The U.S. Congress appears not to have learned any lessons from the broken CNMI labor and immigration system that allowed and ignored the systematic abuse of the nonresident workers, and resulted in the establishment of a two-tiered society where the majority of the population was, and remains, disenfranchised and voiceless. It forged ahead to replace that system with a similar system that will be expensive not just in fiscal costs, but also in human costs.
The corrupt and cruel decades-long CNMI immigration system has been replaced with an inhumane and restrictive federal system under which wage theft continues, questionable businesses are allowed to hire foreign workers, and contract violations are as prevalent as ever. Even foreign workers who are government employees, such as nurses and other medical personnel, have felt the sting of unjust labor practices and wage theft.
For the participating foreign workers, the federal system is a maze with a fortressed exit. Confusion and uncertainty have grown every year since the CNRA passed in 2008. Just sorting through the regulations and restrictions is a challenge for employees and for their employers. How many more hoops will be set up for the foreign workers to jump through?
Eight months after the deadline for the CW permits to be submitted, only about one-third have been processed. Soon employers will have to repeat the process for the upcoming year.
The USCIS reports that over 3,000 CW petitions have not been adjudicated, but have been issued "requests for further evidence". The Marianas Variety reported:
Sebrechts said some petitioners failed to include documentation showing that they are doing business and that they have considered all available U.S. workers for the job position and/or that they are offering employment that is consistent with the nature of their business.
She said USCIS’s California Service Center has also had to ask for evidence of the beneficiary’s lawful presence in the NMI,” she said.
“Many of these requests are still outstanding. It is not possible to make a final decision on these petitions until the employer provides a response,” she said
But the problems are not limited to lengthy and permit process and businesses that violate laws. Another incident highlights other flaws in the guest worker program and the lack of coordination between U.S. federal agencies in administrating it.
It was reported that this week a Filipino CW worker, Teodolfo Perez, was denied a CW visa due to ignorance of State Department personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. The man has worked in the CNMI for 17 years. CNMI legal federal minimum wage is $5.05, rather than the national federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Many mainlanders hearing the story of Mr. Perez would question, "Why is a person who has been living and working legally in the United States for 17 years not already a permanent resident?" The answer, of course, is because the U.S. Congress has failed to enact legislation that would grant permanent residency to the legal, long-term foreign workers of the CNMI.
For the foreign workers, a stint working in the CNMI under the federal CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program offers restrictive travel, a minimum wage much lower than that earned in the mainland, a maze of regulations to negotiate, and no pathway to citizenship. Under CW status, years living and working on U.S. soil do not count for any form of upgraded U.S. status. Most CW categories do not qualify for H-1B or other visa categories that offer a pathway to citizenship. The CW status is perhaps the least desirable of all U.S. status categories. The foreign workers participating in the CW program are stuck in an oppressive situation and will eventually reach a dead end where they must leave if changes are not made soon.
While the USCIS has concentrated on restrictions and oppressive rules, where is the coordination with the U.S. Departments of Labor, State, Justice and Interior to ensure that the rights of the foreign workers are not breached? How is this system serving their interests? This system is about as far from the American Dream as one can get.
The program could and should be reformed through amendments to the CNRA before any extension of the transition period is even considered. Improvements, including a status provision granting all legal, long-term foreign workers permanent residency status, should be included at the time the U.S. Congress considers an extension.