CNMI FEDERALIZATION DELAY BAD FOR GUAM

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New temp workers and some tourists can not come

By Connor Murphy

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, April 2, 2009) - The federal government will delay the implementation of a new immigration law in the region, a move that also delays the arrival of new temporary workers and some new tourists to Guam.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security yesterday announced that a new immigration law for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands scheduled to begin June 1 would be put off until Nov. 28.

The law calls for replacing CNMI immigration laws with those of the federal government; it also mandates that Homeland Security take over immigration duties in the commonwealth. In doing so, it restricts travel to the commonwealth from Russia and China — both valuable tourist markets.

Packaged with this change was a joint Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Hong Kong tourists and other eligible visitors longer visits here.

Also included was an exemption for Guam employers from a cap on the number of H-1B and H-2B petitions granted yearly.

Those changes would be delayed until November as well, according to a Homeland Security news release.

Guam Governor Felix Camacho, CNMI Governor Benigno Fitial, Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo and CNMI Delegate Gregorio Sablan all had requested the delay in implementation of the new immigration rules.

In a news release yesterday, Bordallo said more time is needed to prepare for the changes in immigration rules.

"Ports of entry in Guam and the CNMI need additional resources to meet federal immigration and homeland security requirements," Bordallo said in the release. "The delayed start time will allow our local governments to continue to work with the Department of Homeland Security to address those concerns."

H-2 workers

The delay in lifting the H-2 worker cap and implementing the new visa-waiver program, however, could hurt the island as it deals with reduced tourist numbers and a slew of new construction projects breaking ground, industry officials said yesterday.

Currently, Guam employers compete with those from elsewhere in the country to get a share of 60,000 H2-B temporary laborers each year. Areas aren’t allotted a certain number of workers, said Greg Massey, the Guam Department of Labor administrator of the alien labor processing and certification division.

"There is no portion for this individual area," Massey said. "It’s basically like standing in line at a concert; whoever is by the door gets in."

The cap is reached quickly after the opening of each filing period, he said.

The new law would exempt Guam from the cap. Construction industry officials say this is crucial as the island prepares to construct homes, stores and other projects as the military’s presence on Guam is expected to triple in the next five years.

"We can’t wait until we’re in the middle of a huge boom in construction to make preparations," said John Robertson, owner of AmOrient Contracting Inc. and a Guam Contractors Association board member. "It’s going to be a little bit of difficulty between now and 28 November getting the work force that is truly needed."

Contractors regularly look for workers locally, Robertson said, noting that classes at the association’s Trades Academy usually are at capacity.

"We’re doing our best, but we obviously cannot meet the challenge of something like 15,000 workers," he said — the number that could be needed when the buildup is in full swing.

The military’s buildup-related projects are not scheduled to start construction until the summer of 2010, so they are not affected by the delay, said Capt. Neil Ruggiero, Joint Guam Program Office public information officer.

The announcement came on the same day the Guam Waterworks Authority lifted its development moratorium, which for eight months halted new construction in most of central Guam.

"Those projects are ready to go now, and getting the workers for those projects is going to be tough," Robertson said.

As of February, there were 1,720 H-2 workers on island, the highest number since 1999, Massey said.

Tourism

The delay means current immigration laws in Guam and the CNMI will stay in place for an additional six months, holding off what the CNMI government said would be a severe blow to its economy.

Chinese and Russian tourists are the source of 25 percent of the CNMI’s tourism income, according to the CNMI governor’s office. Once Homeland Security’s immigration rules are in place, these visitors will lose their visa-free access to the commonwealth.

The CNMI governor’s office estimated earlier this month that 656 public sector jobs and 733 private sector jobs would be lost when the new rules take place.

Guam Visitors Bureau General Manager Gerry Perez said the delay will allow Homeland Security to study the impact of cutting off the two markets for the CNMI.

"It would give DHS time to really study through the issues and strike a balance between security interests and the need to facilitate tourist arrivals from these countries, as the legislation had intended to begin with," he said.

The delay would have less of an effect on Guam, Perez said. He said the visa-waiver program Guam has in place would continue for an additional six months.

"For Guam, the immediate impact is really nothing," Perez said. "Nothing has changed."

The delay in allowing visitors from Hong Kong easier entry into Guam, as the island struggles with year-to-year declines in arrivals, could have a negative effect, but how much is hard to say, Perez said.

One factor is that the island still does not have direct flights to and from Hong Kong, Perez said. When it did have twice-weekly direct service, the island saw 10,000 to 15,000 visitors from Hong Kong a year, he said.

Continental Airlines suspended those flights last summer due to rising fuel costs.

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