CNMI Lacks Plan For Foreign Worker Exodus: Sablan

admin's picture

Window to deal with federalization increasingly smaller

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, May 2, 2013) – If the U.S. Secretary of Labor does not extend the federal immigration transition period beyond Dec. 31, 2014, and does not make that decision until next year, the Northern Mariana Islands will be left with only a small window to do the impossible task of looking for over 12,000 U.S. workers to replace foreign workers with CW permits, lawmakers and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) said yesterday.

This comes at a time when the tourism-based economy is improving and will need more workers.

To date, the CNMI has no unified contingency plan to deal with a mass exodus of skilled and professional foreign workers after 2014.

For example, a program to train and employ U.S. workers to become caregivers and house workers has yet to be realized. For decades, these jobs were held by foreign workers. U.S. workers include those originally from the CNMI.

Lawmakers echoed the Saipan Chamber of Commerce's statement that a Dec. 31, 2014, end to the transition period would result in an "economic collapse."

They said the existing U.S. worker pool is not enough to immediately take over the jobs of foreign workers.

Without a transition extension, CW permit holders such as nurses, teachers, accountants, engineers, architects, and many others skilled and professional foreign workers that are not necessarily eligible for H visas need to exit the CNMI.

Some lawmakers such as Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan) said that not all 12,000 CWs should be retained because that would mean jobless indigenous people will still not have a shot at the jobs currently held by these foreign workers.

"I will not accept a blanket extension for 12,000 CWs. I will oppose that," Ogumoro said during discussions in the House chamber.

Rep. Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan), a former CNMI immigration director, reiterated that certain job categories should be reserved for U.S. workers. He cited, for example, categories for cashiers, janitors, waiters/waitresses, and gas attendants, among other posts.

Separate matter

Delegate Sablan repeatedly said that this matter about job categories is separate from the issue of extending the transition period.

He said the decision whether to extend or not the transition period lies with the U.S. Labor secretary, while the job categories exemptions fall under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's concerns.

"The U.S. Secretary of Labor needs to come up with a decision as early as possible because if he says 'no,' we'll say, 'Hello Houston we have a problem.' But he also needs data to make a determination," the delegate said during discussion with lawmakers yesterday.

In an interview later, Sablan said if no such extension is given and that decision is made in 2014, "We're in trouble. Very serious trouble."

Delegate Sablan and Gov. Eloy S. Inos have separately wrote acting U.S. Labor Secretary Seth D. Harris to ask for a five-year extension of the transition period.

They both asked that a decision be made as soon as possible, and not wait for next year to do so, to give the CNMI ample time to prepare.

Delegate Sablan specifically asked in February for a decision on the extension request by August 2013.

At yesterday's meeting, the delegate said the U.S. Labor secretary may not be able to come up with a decision by August because of a transition in leadership. Thomas Perez just got nominated in March as U.S. Labor secretary.

"But I'm hoping they will make a decision within the year, not next year," Delegate Sablan added.

The federalization law allows an extension of "up to" five years. Any extension, if granted, could only be for one, two, three or four years, Delegate Sablan said.

Press secretary Angel Demapan said the administration is hopeful that the transition will be extended.

"If not, the administration is also asking that a decision be made early on so that businesses that will be impacted can prepare for the expiration of the extension. At such point, the Commonwealth too, although options will be greatly limited, will have to look at what alternatives will be available," he said.

House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan) invited Delegate Sablan to a meeting with House and Senate members following a request from Ogumoro and others to discuss the proposed five-year extension.

Delegate Sablan said that "much of the work needed" to prepare the CNMI for the end of the CW program lies with the Executive Branch and the Legislature, and not in Washington, D.C.

Deleon Guerrero told his colleagues that "it's already clear that this is an internal issue-how we prepare our workforce."

More U.S. workers

The House speaker also challenged CNMI employers to hire more U.S. workers.

During the discussions, the delegate cited, for example, one popular restaurant he does not visit only because it has not hired a U.S. worker.

He also said as far as he remembers, a Commonwealth law already requires cashiers to be filled by U.S. workers, but this law is not being enforced. He said the CNMI allows this to happen.

"The federal government got involved because we didn't do our job," he added.

The delegate also asked whether the CNMI Legislature has called the Public School System and Northern Marianas College to ask where they have been using the CW fees paid by employers that hire foreign workers.

The governor's fiscal year 2014 budget estimates $1.4 million from CW fees, to be equally divided between NMC and PSS or $700,000 each.

Sen. Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) and other lawmakers said the previous administration rejected giving CW funds to the Northern Marianas Trade Institute, which is preparing U.S. workers to take on vocational skills.

The press secretary, when asked for comment, said the veto of the NMTI appropriation was a result of complying with the provisions of federal law.

"The governor must prioritize funding to public institutions for employment training first. In the event that there are sufficient resources to support private institutions, then the administration will be willing to look into that at the appropriate time," Demapan said.

He said the administration supports the extension of the transition period "because the Commonwealth lacks the adequate resident workforce to fill the void."

"There is no labor pool that we can just turn to and extract from to fill the affected positions," he added.

The federal law requires a decrease in the annual cap of CW permits until it's zeroed out by the end of the transition period. From 22,000, the latest cap is now at 15,000 but petitions for CW permits reached only over 12,000. However, the cap gives the CNMI ability to hire more given the improving economy.

Toward the end of yesterday's discussions, Ogumoro also asked for another meeting with Delegate Sablan on the U.S. Senate's Gang of Eight bill on national immigration reform, which has a provision proposing improved status for long-term foreign workers in the CNMI.

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment