CNMI Investors Can Hire Foreign Builders On H-Visa: Sablan

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Congressman’s efforts lift limits for construction workers

By Cherrie Anne E. Villahermosa

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Dec. 23, 2015) – U.S. Congressman Gregorio Camacho Kilili Sablan on Tuesday said new investors such as Honest Profit can hire temporary workers using the H-2B visa program if they want to proceed with construction projects.

Guam hires foreign workers, including construction workers, through the H-visa process.

Rep. Joseph Leepan T. Guerrero earlier asked Sablan to look into the delay in the processing of Honest Profit’s petitions for CW workers. The investor wants to construct a new hotel in San Antonio.

Variety learned from other employers that they, too, are still waiting for a response from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for CW petitions submitted in August.

Sablan said "H-2B visas are for workers who are only needed for a specific project and a specific length of time. In the rest of the U.S. there is a limit on the number of H visas each year. But there is no limit here in the Marianas because of the language I put into .S.S Public Law 113-235 last December. That law allows for an unlimited number of H visa construction workers to work in the Marianas without using up any CW permits."

He said CW permits for construction workers are limited.

"There are only 12,999 CW permits available this year. Those CW permits are too valuable to our existing businesses to use for temporary construction workers. CW permits are limited. We can have 12,999 in 2016 but by 2019 that number is supposed to go to zero," Sablan said.

"We may need to stretch out that transition period further. I do not know yet. But I do know that with every year that goes by CW permits will become more and more valuable and should, in my opinion, only be used for workers we cannot get through any other means."

Sablan said Guerrero had not written to him or met with him to discuss the issue.

"But I would explain the situation to him if he asks."

Sablan said there are other companies with CW permits for construction workers because the employers were able to justify their claims that no U.S. workers were available for those jobs.

"When an employer applies for a CW permit, they have to attest that no U.S. worker is available for the job and that they cannot use any other visa category.

"I would say that if anyone has evidence that people are making false attestations on their CW applications, they should give that evidence to USCIS or to the U.S. Attorney’s Office," Sablan added.

In a separate interview, Guerrero said that he raised this concerns with Sablan’s staff and asked a staffer to relay them to the congressman.

He commended Sablan for responding to his appeal and added that he hopes the congressman, as a federal official, will also provide guidance to investors regarding federal labor and immigration rules.

"I am also asking him to address our issue with the foreign workers that new investors need. It’s useless to continue inviting investors to the CNMI when there are not enough workers.We don’t have enough manpower. All of us elected officials should be asking this question, ‘Who do we work for?’ We work for the people of the CNMI. We need new investments so we can have more revenue to provide services, jobs and programs for our people. If we are working for the CNMI and its people and not just for ourselves then there’s no reason for us to go wrong."

Acting Gov. Ralph Torres, in a separate interview said: "The CW program is set to be phased out in 2019 by federal law. It is in our best interests to continue training our U.S. eligible workforce to make up the shortfall in labor and to seek out more appropriate visa classifications for jobs that are needed such as construction jobs. The new developments we have in sight will require a large construction workforce. And for those positions we cannot fill locally, the H-visa classification is an opportunity for project developers to bring in foreign construction workers in a manner consistent with our responsibility to transition from the CW program by 2019."

Torres added, "I encourage developers to pursue the available local workforce first then seek alternative visa classifications before considering the CW program. This issue and the need to create a lasting solution for our workforce needs are things I intend to work on further and incorporate into our 902 consultation talks [with the White House.]"

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