The United States government has put a new limit of 12,999 foreign workers, including those from the Philippines, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) for fiscal year 2016 under the transitional worker program.
The announcement comes barely four years before the end of the so-called transitional Commonwealth-only worker-1 (or CW-1) program in 2019.
Under the CW-1 program, employers in the CNMI can apply for temporary permission to employ foreign nationals who are ineligible for any existing employment-based non-immigrant category under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
Currently, most non-immigrant workers in the CNMI under the CW program are from the Philippines. The CNMI is a US territory in the Western Pacific, some three hours away from Manila by plane.
After 2019, only those foreign workers who are eligible for H visas and any job-based non-immigrant category under the INA will be allowed to continue working in the CNMI.
The new limit on the number of workers under the CW program was announced by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on Wednesday (Thursday, Manila time).
USCIS is the agency under the US Department of Homeland Security that handles immigration benefits. DHS published the new worker quota in the Oct. 22, 2015 Federal Register.
Under the law that placed CNMI immigration under US federal control, the number of non-immigrant workers under the CW-1 program will be decreased every year until it reaches zero at the end of the transition period, which was extended by five years last year or up to 2019.
The latest limit on the number of CW-1 workers allowed is a decrease of only 1,000 from the FY 2015 cap of 13,999.
DHS, in a statement, said it reduced the FY 2016 CW-1 limit by 1,000 “to meet the CNMI’s existing labor market needs and provide opportunity for potential growth, while meeting a regulatory requirement to reduce the numerical limit each year.”
But CNMI employers, employees and elected officials are still pressing the US government to extend the transitional CW-1 program beyond 2019 because there is still a lack of available and qualified U.S. workers to take over the jobs currently held by CW-1 program foreign workers.
This is especially because the CNMI is seeing additional and expanding major hotels and other tourism-based businesses, including a planned US$7.1 billion integrated casino resort on the main island of Saipan.
Many of the current CW-1 foreign workers in the CNMI will not qualify for H visas and other types of INA non-immigrant visas so they would have to exit the CNMI after 2019, unless the US government extends once again the transitional worker program.
The other option is for US Congress to grant a more permanent immigration status to long-term foreign workers in the CNMI to allow CW-1 permit holders to remain and provide a stable workforce.
However, any such immigration legislation is met with firestorm in a divided US Congress.
For years, Filipino worker groups and other foreign workers in the CNMI have been drumming up support for pathway to US citizenship for many of the long-term foreign workers in the CNMI.
They argue that they have entered the CNMI legally, have contributed to the growth of the local economy and continue to do so, that they have US Social Security numbers, and that they will continue to be needed by the tourism-based economy beyond 2019.
Some sectors in the CNMI, on the other hand, want the reliance on foreign workers to end and have been calling on the local government and private businesses to aggressively train local or US workers so they can fill up all the available jobs that will be vacated once CW-1 foreign workers exit the CNMI after 2019.
Earlier this year, the CNMI government reported to US Labor Secretary Tom Perez an unemployment rate of 16.8 percent in 2014, with 4,674 persons out of work.
But still, the numbers of job positions needed to run an existing -- and expanding -- tourism-based CNMI economy are much greater than the US worker pool that’s available between now and right after 2019.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), the CNMI’s non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives, said the newly announced cap of 12,999 on the number of foreign CW-1 workers in FY 2016 “means that employers must continue to find more ways to hire US workers, if growth is to continue.”
“Today’s action, however, also reminds us that the number of CW workers will continue to decrease over the next four years and that everyone in the Marianas – business, government, and the educational system – will have to work overtime to replace this foreign labor with US workers or with foreign workers who have some status other than CW. That means workers with H or other employment-based visas. That means workers from the Freely Associated States, who have the ability to immigrate to and live in the Northern Marianas,” said Sablan.
The CW-1 program began with a cap of 22,417 in 2009, based on the number of workers that the CNMI had prior to the extension of US immigration law on the islands.
By 2013, USCIS officials testified to Congress that the number of CW workers was down to 10,071.
Foreign workers in the CNMI holding CW-1 permits are in almost every sector or the workforce, from nurses to accountants, hotel and restaurant staffers, household workers, farmers, engineers, architects and utility workers, among others. —KBK, GMA News