Change Needed to Address Problems with the CNMI Transitional Worker Program

March 25, 2013

Two top CNMI leaders, Congressman Gregorio Sablan and Governor Eloy Inos are pushing for an extension of the flawed USCIS CNMI Transitional Guest Worker Program. Their move is understandble considering the alternative, but an extension will not solve the CNMI's problem of maintaining a skilled and stable workforce. Foreign workers make up over 70% of the private work sector, but under PL 110-229 they must leave by December 31, 2014 if the program is not extended for five years. If an extension is granted,  the foreign workers would have to leave by December 2019. There is only one five-year extension provided in the federal law. The focus must be on providing status to the loyal and skilled long-term foreign workers who are essential for the stability of the private work sector.

The federal guest worker program has been a failure, but the problems originated with the law. PL 110-229, which mandated the guest worker program, itself lacks a status provision for the existing and future foreign workers. Without one the law, like the program, is flawed.

The federal guest worker program has been problematic since it made its sloppy debut and it continues to wreak havoc on the workers, businesses and economy. Extending it in its current state will only extend the problems for five more years. The foreign workers live in a state of uncertainty and fear. Most waited over 6 months to even get their CW visa applications approved; some are still waiting. The long processing time of CW visas, ridiculously restrictive travel policies and a disconnect between U.S. Embassies and the federal CW program has caused financial and personal hardship for far too many. The program has done nothing to advance the struggling CNMI economy.  In fact, most agree it is a major part of the problem.

And the problems keep growing. Currently, there still remain original applications for CW workers that have not even been processed and it is time to renew permits. Employees and employers can look forward to another year of USCIS backlogs and delays. USCIS has told employers that their foreign employees cannot work until their permits are renewed. From The Saipan Tribune:
Alex Sablan, Chamber president, said they appreciate Mayorkas' response but said “there has been, and continues to be, economic harm to employers and employees as a result of those not receiving their CW-1 permit renewals in a timely manner.” 
“We are not as sympathetic to those employers that have not applied for their renewals 90 days prior to the expiration of their original permits, but for those that have executed in a timely manner, there has to be more than a letter from USCIS saying they'll try to minimize the possibility of lapse,” Sablan said. 
Maria Luisa Dela Cruz-Ernest, president of SHRM-CNMI Chapter said: “In SHRM's role of representing the CNMI community's human resource professionals and their companies and employees, we feel that it is necessary to emphasize that we still have a problem.” 
“We still have workers who are forced to stay home when their visa extensions are not received in time. Any petitioner who receives a Request for Evidence (RFE) will most likely go beyond the visa expiration date even if the extension was requested 90 days in advance,” Ernest told Saipan Tribune.
While waiting for their employees' CW renewals, employers have had to hire unskilled workers from manpower agencies, putting their businesses at risk. Meanwhile their longterm, loyal foreign workers are sitting at their houses waiting for their permits to be processed. How can they support themselves and their families while USCIS processes their visa extensions? This is an inhumane and unacceptable policy, especially since the USICS processing rate has been horrendous. (See this post, Another Glitch in the CNMI Guest Worker Program, for a rundown of the unacceptable timeline USCIS has followed in processing applications.)

Another problem is many workers who return to their homelands cannot get needed paperwork to return to the CNMI because the U.S. Embassies and USCIS do not effectively communicate. Here is an email I received from a foreign worker who is stuck in Bangladesh:
I ____________, Bangladeshi national working in Saipan since 1994. Now I am in Bangladesh waiting for Visa since Oct 29, 2012. On Oct 9, 2012 I had left Saipan for Bangladesh as vacation leave  from  (company's name) due to my wife's treatment. I had received FMLA for 61 days from my company. Since I had arrived in Bangladesh I renewed my passport by two weeks and I applied for CNMI CW Visa at the US embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Oct 25, 2012. I had an interview with visa processing officer on Oct 29, 2012. During interview Visa officer assured me that I would receive visa and I must check on their website everyday for update news. On Dec 21st I was advised to submit my passport at the US Embassy in Dhaka. I had submitted my passport there on Dec 23, 2012 and that day they issued me Visa delivery Token and advised me to check on the website everyday. On Dec 26, 2012 I found an update on the website, it says there, '' Your visa case is currently undergoing necessary administrative processing. This processing can take several weeks. Please follow any instructions provided by the Consular Officer at the time of your interview. If further information is needed, you will be contacted. If your visa application is approved, it will be processed and mailed/available within two business days." Since then I am checking every working day for the update, till now I didn't receive any update news. On the other hand, my wife had received CW-2 Visa on July 30, 2012 which is going to expire on July 30, 2013. She had submitted her application on the middle of July, 2012. She did not visit yet in Saipan, is waiting for my Visa to fly together. My approved CW-1 going to expire on May 03, 2013. Now I really don't know what happened to my job in (company name). What will happen if I can't back to Saipan where I had adjusted my daily life for 18 years. Since I know that you assist people for the Rights, I decided to inform you about my situation. There are three others waiting for visa for long days. . .
This email, which I referred to officials for assistance, is an example of how the federal program has utterly failed the longterm (in this case 18 years!) employees and their employers. USICS has had ample time to iron out the wrinkles, but it has just created more as the program advanced.

The best immediate solution for the CNMI would be to grant U.S. permanent residency status (green cards) to the legal, long-term foreign workers. Both of the CNMI's top leaders must know that there is no guarantee that immigration reform will be introduced and, if and when it is introduced, if there will be a provision to provide status for the CNMI's legal longterm foreign workers.  So it makes sense to call for an extension of the program rather than risk a mass exodus of the private sector workforce. However, the leaders should also be calling for much needed revisions to the guest worker program and for support to amend PL 110-229 to include a provision granting permanent residency to the CNMI's legal, longterm foreign workers and other categories of nonresidents who have made the CNMI their home. The law should be amended to provide status for all future foreign workers who live in work in the CNMI for five or more years.

People should not be treated as disposable or replaceable as they are now under this program and under current immigration law. Any guest worker program that lacks a status provision is morally unacceptable. Any guest worker program that lacks a status provision conflicts with the principles upon which our nation was built and with the UN Declaration of Human Rights.


Angelo Villagomez said...

One wonders if the goal of USCIS is to increase the amount of people working illegally, as it is in the mainland.

Anonymous said...

fake hope by fade human being.who will stay for 5 to 8 more years for path way to us citizenship? its an fake hope to cheat cnmi innocent long term workers.they want to use and throw them back its an true.until that time they train them fecto citizen.may be remain one will get after 5 or 8 years.they will abuse more again and again with them political game with saipan chamber of commerce. them game is to take more and more advantage of innocent long term foreigners. shame on this policy.all are involved to do this abuse/discrimination.US congrass/federal/USCIS is involved in with fecto saipanese.poor human being never change to abuse another powerless human being.shame on US democratic,its not at all its an powercommunist. its time to change if u don't then wait a while it will back to you soon....soonnnnn

Anonymous said...

Since beginning the creation of US Public law 110-229 CNMI opposed to have improved immigration status for long term alien workers. Still they do. But there is change in their thinking recently as they discover CM-1 program administered by US department of Homeland Security will end on December 31, 2014. They want foreign workers without immigration status and expect them to leave CNMI. And it does matter how long a foreigner stays in CNMI. Because they do not believe US Congress will provide an improved immigration status to CNMI workers. CNMI wants their foreign workers to remain as they are under PL 110-229 without a hope to gain permanent US immigration status. Is Mr. Kilili right? Every individual in this world lives with hope and dream to make progress in their life and it does not matter if he or she lives in a small community such as CNMI or any other part of the world. Mr. Inos knows it better. Help to address a special immigration provision for long term alien workers in CNMI to be included in US immigration reform bill.