CNMI Foreign Worker Permit Renewals To Be Finalized

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

Most of 800 timely applications expected to be approved

By Dennis B. Chan

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 6, 2016) – About 800 applications for contract worker permit renewals submitted at least 90 days before expiration would be processed "by the end of the day" yesterday, according to U.S Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (MP-Ind)—with the expectation that most of the 800 applications pending would be approved.

"A small number will require more evidence from the applicant," Sablan said in a statement yesterday, after a phone call with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service director Leon Rodriguez. "And an even smaller number will probably be denied, as is usually the case," Sablan added.

In early December, about 100 applicants—concerned about processing delays—came to the Sablan’s congressional office. Most were successfully resolved. However, while working on those cases, USCIS informed Sablan that there were actually 2,800 of applications backlogged at the processing center in California—with 800 filed 90 days before expiration and 2,000 filed late.

"That was unacceptable to me," Sablan said in his statement. "And we are already seeing the negative effects of that backlog with businesses having to close or cut back hours."

Sablan has also written to Rodriguez to ask for federal rules to be finalized to allow certain visa-holders, including contract workers, to work while their permits are being processed, Sablan told Saipan Tribune in an interview yesterday. These rules—published for comment in the federal register in mid-2014—have been "19 months in the making."

Sablan explained that these regulations would allow an employee to continue to work up to 240 days while their petitions are being adjudicated—until approval or denial or a request for more evidence is issued.

"But that has not been finalized," Sablan told Saipan Tribune. "[Rodriguez] doesn’t have an answer for me on that one yet."

"It will be finalized, hopefully, sooner rather than later," added Sablan.

In their phone call, Rodriguez also assured that "what’s going on now" would not be happening come Dec. 31 or Jan 1 next year, Sablan said.

Sablan’s office has been working daily through the holidays to make sure that USCIS puts extra people to work processing those applications and look at other actions the agency can take to help keep businesses open. Rodriguez called yesterday to give Sablan an update and his "personal commitment that he is taking action and that we will see results today."

The delay in contract worker renewals was felt by businesses all over the Commonwealth. It has affected over 20 percent of the CW workforce, as there are over 10,000 contract workers in the CNMI. For one, the delay has been reported to affect roughly 50 employees at Triple J Enterprises, which owns such restaurants like Truongs, Tony Roma’s, Capricciosa, among other businesses. Also, at least 10 contract workers—from China, Korea, and the Philippines—at the popular tourist shop, Star Sands Plaza, have also been affected, with most of these being at the managerial level. Some eligible workers have been given extended work hours, Saipan Tribune learned yesterday.

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