GARAPAN, Saipan - Mang Rey, not his real name, has been working as a cashier and sales clerk for 21 years on Saipan, the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a chain of US-territory islands in Micronesia.
Despite being employed here for more than two decades, the 54-year-old native of Batangas fears he might be booted out of his job soon if he fails to find a new employer immediately.
“I can no longer sleep at night thinking about it. The 21 years I stayed here will only be put to waste. If I will be sent home, who else will hire me in the Philippines given my age?" he told GMANews.TV in Filipino.
Under the current CNMI law, alien workers whose contracts were not renewed were told to depart the US-territory unless they have a pending labor case with any local or federal agency or a pending civil case in the courts.
Last Friday, S. 2739 or the Natural Resources Act of 2008 was presented to President George Bush in hopes that the more than 19,000 documented Filipino workers in CNMI could enjoy a federal immigration law which will create a federal guest worker program and establish a non-voting CNMI delegate seat in the US House of Representatives.
Foreign workers are hopeful that under a federal immigration system in the CNMI, they would have a better immigration status that will eventually lead to permanent residency or US citizenship.
The newly-formed Coalition of United Guest Workers (CNMI) echoed the fears of Filipino workers like Rey and said that once President Bush signs the measure, they would ask the Federal Labor Ombudsman’s office to help them prevent longtime foreign workers from being sent home.
“They are worried that after 10 or 20 years of working on Saipan, they will be sent home, just when they have a chance now to have a permanent immigration status," coalition chair Irene Tantiado said, who has been in Saipan for 11 years.
A signature campaign is circulating to petition the US government to provide green cards to longtime guest workers in the CNMI.
Mang Rey went to Saipan in 1987 as a painter and earned $2.25 an hour. To be able to provide for his family in the Philippines, he also agreed to work as a farmer despite having a bachelor’s degree in banking and finance.
His current employer advised him that he won’t be able to renew his contract which would expire on June 27 because of financial difficulties.
He earns $3.55 an hour, which is the current minimum wage in the CNMI and pays $100 monthly for housing.
“There are many workers who find themselves in this situation and we want to help them," said Tantiado.
If President Bush signs the measure into law this month, the federal transition program or the “federal takeover" will begin on June 1, 2009 or Nov. 28, 2009, depending on whether or not there’s a delay of up to 180 days to complete the regulations.
Alfredo Antolin, a visiting businessman who is seeking a senatorial seat on Guam, told hundreds of guest workers gathered at the Garapan Central Park on Sunday to “be very patient."
“You waited for 10 or 20 years, why not wait for another year?" said Antolin, whose parents are from Pangasinan and Ilocos Sur who migrated to Guam decades ago.
Antolin told workers to be careful between now and the effective date of the federalization measure, so they won’t have any criminal or financial record.
He said by the time the federal government reviews their eligibility for a better immigration status, they need to have a clean record.
Antolin and Tantiado also disclosed that some Guam-based lawyers are willing to do pro bono work to help eligible foreign workers in the CNMI in light of a federalized immigration system in the islands.
The CNMI is about 120 miles north of Guam, also a US territory that -- in two years -- will have the biggest US Marines base since World War II.
Because of the military buildup on Guam, thousands of foreign workers from the CNMI and other nearby areas will be needed for construction projects, among other things.
S. 2739 extends immigration laws to the CNMI, and gives the CNMI a non-voting delegate to Congress.
The CNMI is the only US territory that does not have a delegate to the US Congress.
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced the bill on March 10, 2008. It passed the US Senate on April 10, 2008 by a vote of 91-4.
A few weeks later on April 29, the US House of Representatives passed the bill on a vote of 291-117, and was cleared for the White House that same day.
Hurting the economy
But CNMI Governor Benigno () R. Fitial remains opposed the federal takeover of CNMI immigration.
Fitial, who delivered his State of the Commonwealth Address on Friday, warned that the federalization bill would further hurt the CNMI’s struggling economy and would make it difficult for the employers to hire alien workers to fill in the jobs.
He also expressed fears that the CNMI will lose its edge as a destination for Russian and Chinese tourists under a federal immigration system. - GMANews.TV