March 25, 2013
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.