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Employers welcome long-awaited action

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Nov. 1, 2011) – U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signed on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. the long-delayed regulations governing foreign workers in the CNMI, paving the way for DHS to publish the regulations in the Federal Register this week.

There's less than three months to go before the Nov. 27 expiration of the two-year period allowed under the federalization law wherein workers can still remain in the CNMI using a Commonwealth-issued permit.

After Nov. 27, foreign workers need to have a U.S. employment visa such as a transitional CW visa or an H visa, or they could face deportation.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP) announced yesterday morning Napolitano's signing of the transitional Commonwealth-only worker regulations on Aug. 30.

Government officials, employers, and employees welcomed the news, and all were hoping that the rules will be published right away.

Rabby Syed, president of the United Workers Movement-NMI, said there's also "fear" over the number of foreign workers who may not be accommodated by the CW rule, among other things.

"We want to know the kind of flexibility that the regulations provide to accommodate as many foreign workers as possible. Employers will be the one to apply for a CW visa for their employees," Syed told Saipan Tribune.

Syed said the United Workers Movement-NMI continues to advocate for improved immigration status for long-term foreign workers in the CNMI, specifically, "green card" or pathway to U.S. citizenship.

Proposals for improved immigration status are not covered by the CW regulations.

the uncertainty'

Sablan said publication of the CW regulations in the Federal Register will "help lift the uncertainty that has been hanging over the heads of businesses and workers in the NMI ever since the governor got the federal court to strike down the original regulations in November 2009."

Douglas Brennan, president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, earlier said the lack of regulations is "putting the brakes on our economy."

When asked for comment yesterday, Brennan said "signed or not, we haven't seen the rule yet." He said he looks forward to seeing the published regulations.

Sablan said with the regulations now available, businesses will be able to make decisions about how many people to keep employed and whether the time has come to more actively recruit among local workers.

"And foreign workers will finally gain some certainty about whether they will have jobs here after November," the delegate said.

Sablan said the worker regulations will lay out the process for employers to obtain a special CNMI-only visa for their workers, who do not qualify for any other U.S. visa category.

This CNMI-only visa will allow them to continue working in the Northern Marianas, but not in any other part of the U.S. The visa will be available until the end of the immigration transition period, now scheduled for 2014.

Marilyn Cruz, a 36-year-old worker from the Philippines who has been working on Saipan since 1995, said that, just like others in the community, she wants to know what's in the CW regulations.

"And what if your employer does not apply for a CW visa for you?" she asked.

Cruz said all she wants is the ability to continue working on Saipan, and not necessarily to obtain improved immigration status.

During a morning briefing yesterday, Sablan said that DHS officials told him that the regulations will be published in the Federal Register this week, and discussed their plans for community outreach and implementation.

He said included yesterday morning's teleconference was DHS deputy assistant secretary for policy Kelly Ryan.

Sablan said DHS plans to send about a half dozen people to the Marianas in mid-September, once local business people and workers have had a chance to look at the regulations.

"I am assured that Homeland Security will be holding workshops and answering questions on Rota, Tinian, and Saipan over about a two-week period. Congressional staff will be working with businesses and all interested parties to make sure that DHS answers all the questions that are sure to arise about how these regulations will work," he said.

Marie Thérèse Sebrechts, regional media manager for DHS's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, earlier said the outreach team will include USCIS district director David Gulick, a community relations officer, a press officer, an officer from the California Service Center division that handles CNMI applications, and staff members from the USCIS legal counsel and policy who are familiar with the CNMI regulations.

The interim worker regulations were first published on Oct. 27, 2009. A lawsuit by the Commonwealth government forced DHS to retract the regulations a month later.

The court did not find any substantive problem with the regulations, but said the public comment process required by law was not followed.

Since the court action, workers and businesses in the CNMI have been left in a state of uncertainty, guessing what the rules for employment would be after the CNMI-issued visas that most workers now have expire in November 2011.

Sablan and other members of Congress, including Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NMI), Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) have kept up a constant clamor for DHS to re-issue the regulations.

On Tuesday, Sablan told reporters that the regulations could be out next week or at least before Sept. 15. But the Aug. 30 action by Napolitano could result in the release of the regulations earlier than Sablan had anticipated.

Sablan said those eligible to apply for H visas "should start planning for H visa" application."

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