Foreign Workers Oppose CNMI Federalization Transition Extension

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Capability to maintain workforce without immigrant workers questioned

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, July 24, 2012) – With their position now firmed up, worker groups in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) are opposing the extension of the federalization transition period beyond Dec. 31, 2014, and will ask the U.S. government to instead grant improved immigration status to long-term, legal foreign workers.

They describe the granting of improved status as the more humane, more effective way of stabilizing the tourism-based CNMI workforce and economy.

"Extending the transition period will only prolong the suffering and agony of a lot of foreign workers but also result in the continued destabilization of the workforce," Dekada Movement president Bonifacio Sagana told Saipan Tribune yesterday.

Had the federal government and the CNMI government considered granting improved immigration status to long-term workers years and decades ago, "the workforce would be in a much stable condition."

"The simple solution to stabilizing the workforce is granting improved status to these foreign workers. They have been here for too long that an improved status will not affect the livelihood of the local people or anyone's way of life. Our way of life is like their way of life. They have failed for years and decades to train their residents, another five years of that won't make a difference," Sagana said.

Rabby Syed, president of United Workers Movement-NMI, separately said it is not a good argument for the CNMI government to say that the transition period should be extended to allow foreign workers to be continuously hired because the CNMI has been unable to train the resident workforce for years and decades to be able to run the economy without relying on skilled foreign workers.

Syed and Sagana said a five-year extension will still be not enough for the resident workers to be educated and trained to be able to take over the positions currently filled by close to 12,000 foreign workers petitioned for a transitional Commonwealth-only worker permit.

U.S. Public Law 110-229, the law that placed CNMI immigration under federal control, provides for a transition period not to exceed Dec. 31, 2014.

Under the federalization law, the guest worker population in the CNMI should be zeroed out after the transition period.

The law also provides that the U.S. Secretary of Labor, in consultation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary and the CNMI governor, will assess the CNMI’s current and anticipated labor needs to determine whether an extension of up to five years is necessary to ensure an adequate number of workers will be available for businesses in the Commonwealth.

Syed said the United Workers Movement-NMI is now preparing a letter addressed to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, asking her not to extend the transition period.

He said copies of the letter will also be sent to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and Gov. Benigno R. Fitial.

Sagana said Dekada is eyeing a joint letter with the United Workers Movement and other organizations "for a unified and strong message" to the U.S. government.

"I am hoping we will have a more united voice on this," he said.

Rene Reyes, founding president of the Marianas Advocates for Humanitarian Affairs Ltd., said yesterday that a greater number of MAHAL members and supporters do not want any extension of the transition period.

He said it is time the U.S. government, as well as the CNMI, make a decision on the fate of its long-term legal alien workers.

Reyes reiterated that by not extending the transition period after 2014, the U.S. government would at least be able to make a decision now to give an immigration status much better than the CW-1 status.

Syed, for his part, said within months of the implementation of the transitional CW program, "we've already seen that the program has a lot of problems with it. Another five years of the same thing will not be helpful to everyone, especially the CNMI economy."

Most of the nearly 12,000 foreign workers petitioned for a CW-1 permit have yet to be granted such permit.

Florida-based human rights activist and former Rota teacher Wendy Doromal, in her blog, reiterated that "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," she said.

Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Douglas Brennan recently wrote to Napolitano, urging her to help convince U.S. Labor to extend by five years the transition period in the CNMI.

Brennan said the Chamber views the additional transition period as "absolutely necessary to prevent a collapse of our CNMI economy." He said the economy still needs some 12,000 foreign workers.

He said the current transition period is not enough time to phase out the almost 12,000 foreign national employees and replace them with U.S. citizens and/or residents by December 2014."

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial has also been saying that he wants an extension of the transition period. But Fitial strongly opposes granting improved immigration status to long-term foreign workers; he wants them to remain in the CNMI as contract workers.

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