U.S. Immigration Services Announces Deferred-Action Policy On CNMI Transitional Worker Visas

Policy a 'relief for some of the workers affected by the cutoff of the fiscal year 2016' visa issuances when a cap was reached

By Cherrie Anne E. Villahermosa

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, August 31, 2016) – U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has finally announced a decision on the CW issue, saying its deferred-action policy may benefit workers whose CW permits have already expired.

The policy will allow contract workers affected by the cap to continue to reside legally in the Northern Marianas, but they need to “demonstrate exceptional circumstances or justifications.”

USCIS said the deferred-action policy will be handled on a case-by-case basis, and it will not affect contract workers who have already left the island because of the CW cap.

But those who have remained after their permits expired or whose permits have not yet expired will be able to apply for deferred action, USCIS said.

If granted deferred action, the workers would be able to maintain a lawful presence during the deferred-action period.

The workers may also apply for employment authorization. But if their applications for fiscal 2017 permits are approved, the workers will be required to leave the commonwealth for consular processing of a new visa and re-enter the CNMI again, USCIS said.

U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, in a media statement, commended   Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for coming out with some kind of relief for some of the workers affected by the cutoff of the fiscal year 2016 CW-1 permit renewals announced in May.

“Today’s news will be welcomed by those CW-1 workers who may now be eligible for deferred action,” Kilili said on Tuesday. “It is also good news for their families, their employers and everyone in our community whose economic interests are tied to having a stable and adequate workforce.”

In his statement, Gov. Ralph Torres thanked USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez for “his concern about the current situation here in the CNMI.”

According to the governor, “Since learning of the economic and humanitarian effects of the CW cap being reached early this year, I have made every effort to explain and relay the situation on the ground and why immediate action is necessary. There are many good, hardworking people in USCIS and the Department of Homeland Security who have listened to the CNMI’s concerns in both 902 consultations and bilateral discussion and have worked hard to provide this relief to many. I sincerely appreciate today’s announcement, but recognize that we have much work to do to ensure this transition period achieves its goals with the least possible harm to the fragile CNMI economy and the many families who call our islands home.”

In a press conference Tuesday morning, Torres said he understands the frustrations of the business community and he shares those frustrations, but added that the CW issue is a federal one.

“So we cannot expect the CNMI government to release any new information about the issue because we don’t handle our immigration. I want that to be clear.”

Torres said he will continue to work closely with Kilili and the CNMI Legislature so that they will have a unified position when addressing the islands’ workforce issues.

The administration, in a statement, said the USCIS announcement “significantly reflected” the CNMI’s recommendations during the 902 consultation process.

HANMI, chamber ‘very thankful’

The Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Saipan Chamber of Commerce said they are thankful for the “great consideration” USCIS has given the CNMI.

In an email, HANMI president Gloria C. Cavanagh said she wanted to thank Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Majorkas, Congressman Kilili and the Torres administration “for the work they have to done to get to this point.”

She added, “This is good news for those remaining CW1 employees that are facing much hardship with the FY 2016 cap.”

Cavanagh said the USCIS decision will also alleviate worsening conditions caused by the labor shortage.

“Although I don’t totally understand the mechanics nor the politics in this kind of consideration, I am led to believe that this is a huge accommodation for the CNMI. For this HANMI is very thankful,” she said.

There are 1,300 CW workers who were affected by the cap.

She admitted though that it is still tough dealing with the splitting up of families that has already occurred over the last couple of months. She said they have sent all but one employee back to their homelands to wait for approval of their CW1s under the new fiscal year.

A few of them, she said, still have young children being taken care of by close relatives here.

She said the next thing to do now is to work on getting approval for a much needed increase in the CW cap.

“The CNMI is growing exponentially. The original cap was to afford the supply of labor for the operations of a [declining] economy. With growth the way it is now, we are going to fall short very soon with our labor market again,” Cavanagh said.

“Again, we are very thankful. However our plight for an opportunity to grow our economy is directly tied to having an adequate labor pool. We need a more realistic cap in order to do this.”

In a separate email, Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios said the USCIS announcement is welcome news for everyone.    

“Since the announcement that the CW cap had been reached in May, businesses had to make adjustments within their operations as some of their employees affected had to leave island. Businesses have instituted training programs and created partnerships to address their human resource requirements. CW-1 workers and their families have made hard decisions: to separate their families or to leave their home altogether,” Palacios said.    

Businesses now have guidance and an avenue to maintain those who would be eligible to support their operations, she added.

“With the continued economic growth in our islands, we need a workforce to support and sustain this growth. Our economy is on a rebound…. We have many new hotel developments that have started construction and are planned. New businesses including restaurant franchises have opened. In addition to the local workforce capacity, we still require our CW-1 workers. We thank Congressman Kilili and Governor Torres for working with USCIS.”

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