GMA News Online
Pinoy Abroad

Pinoy relatives of US citizens in CNMI fear losing immigration status

November 10, 2008 9:36pm
GARAPAN, Saipan – Arlene Aldan, 42, of Batangas, may be forced to leave her three children with her husband on the island of Saipan or go back to being a foreign contract worker from her current status of “immediate relative" (IR) of a US citizen once the federal government takes over the immigration system of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) as early as June 2009.

Aldan’s fear of losing her immigration status is shared by thousands of Filipinos and other foreign nationals with US citizen relatives in the CNMI.

The CNMI is a 14-island United States territory about three hours away from Manila.

Nag-aalala ako sa mga anak ko. Mapipilitan akong umalis ng Saipan pero paano naman ang mga anak ko? Maliliit pa sila para mahiwalay sa akin (I worry about my children. I will be forced to leave Saipan but how about my kids? They are still young to be away from me)," Aldan told GMANews.TV.

Aldan came to the CNMI’s capital island of Saipan in 1989 to work as a kitchen helper in a flight catering service firm. In 1997, she married a local resident who is a US citizen. They now have three children – the youngest is only a year old and the eldest is 13.

She had been content with her “IR" status instead of securing a lawful permanent resident status or becoming a “green card" holder even after 10 years had passed since she got married.

But news of the possibility of losing her immigration status in the CNMI and consequently leaving behind her three children forced her to apply for a “green card" barely weeks ago.

A “green card" allows an individual to live and work permanently in the United States. A holder of a “green card" is eligible to apply for US citizenship.

Sana ma-approve ang green card application ko bago mag-June. Lumapit na ako sa abogado para ma-file ang papers ko (I hope my green card application will be granted before June. I had approached a lawyer to be able to file my papers)," she said.

Public Law 110-229, signed by US President George Bush in May, puts the CNMI immigration under federal control as early as June 2009 but the draft regulations to implement it have yet to be released for public comment.

The same law led to the Nov. 4 election of the CNMI’s first nonvoting delegate to the US Congress.

Some 10,000 Filipinos and Filipino-Americans live and work in the CNMI.

Luckier than others

But Aldan, whose green card application is now being processed, is luckier than others whose US citizen relatives died even before they could get a “green card."

“L.R.," another Filipina, became a widow of a US citizen even before the latter could apply for a green card for her. Thus, even after years of marriage to a US citizen, she still has an IR status which she may lose next year.

Under CNMI law, a surviving foreign spouse of a deceased US citizen remains classified as the decedent’s immediate relative for immigration purposes, so long as the survivor does not remarry.

L.R.’s only hope is the US government’s consideration in allowing her to keep her current immigration status beyond June 2009.

Immediate relatives of US citizens can reside in the CNMI and work without restrictions. These individuals count as “local hire" under CNMI labor statutes. They are afforded privileges similar to local CNMI residents, except for the right to vote in CNMI elections.

Many of these immediate relatives of US citizens have never applied to become United States permanent residents because they did not see any need to do so, or the minimum income requirements are out of their reach, or for various reasons.

But now that the federal government will take over CNMI immigration, these individuals fear losing their status and the privileges that go with it, including employment without restriction.

Danilo Domingo, 62, obtained a permanent residence status under CNMI law years after his arrival on Saipan in January 1974 to work as an accountant for $600 a month plus housing allowance and other benefits.

From 1978 to 1981, qualified foreign nationals could become CNMI permanent residents.

The class was closed by statute in April 1981, although a number of individuals were processed in 1984, after successful litigation over the implementation of the law which repealed the permanent residency statute.

Ang taas ng offer na sweldo sa akin noon dito, kaya iniwan ko ang trabaho ko sa Pilipinas para pumunta ng Saipan. Tapos naging permanent resident ako (They offered me a high salary here that time that’s why I left my job in the Philippines to work on Saipan. Then I became a permanent resident)," Domingo said in an interview with GMANews.TV.

Domingo, just like thousands of Filipinos and other foreign nationals in the CNMI, wishes that he will be able to retain his permanent resident status even after the federal government implements the new immigration law.

“Any uncertainty as to what the federal government will do makes everybody worried. Siyempre worried ako. Pero pinapaubaya ko na sa Kanya. Matanda na ako ,/i>(Of course I am worried. But I leave it all up to Him. I am already old)," said Domingo, a father to three children, two of them US citizens because they were born on Saipan.

Flexibility sought

Attorney Maya B. Kara, president of the CNMI Bar Association, sought clarification from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on matters related to the implementation of the federal immigration law.

“Some of these items have to do with the direct implementation of Public Law 110-229, and others are more likely unintended consequences," Kara said in her letter to US Department of Homeland Security-Honolulu District Director David G. Gulick.

Among her concerns is the impact of the federal law on the minimum salary levels for H-visa applicants, the minimum income requirement for lawful permanent resident applicants, and the immigration status of some groups of CNMI residents.

These groups include immediate relatives of US citizens, immediate relatives of deceased US citizen spouses, CNMI permanent residents, immediate relatives of citizens of the Freely Associated States, and foreign individuals who retire in the CNMI.

Kara said it appears under P.L. 110-229, immediate relatives of US citizens will be out of status upon the expiration of the entry permit that is current when the transition period begins after June 1, 2009.

She said given the number of affected individuals, it may not be feasible for the DHS office on Guam to process all of them before they go out of status.

“The result will be considerable hardship for those affected families," said Kara, a former attorney general of the CNMI.

The CNMI Bar Association president suggested that DHS provide in the regulations governing the transition some flexibility to allow orderly transition of as many individuals as possible from CNMI immediate relative to lawful permanent resident status.

Fallback

Alejandro Tabora, 50, of Muntinlupa, has been on Saipan for 31 years. He came to this island in 1977 to work as an auto mechanic for 95 cents an hour and is now a cockpit manager in the biggest cockpit arena on Saipan.

His immigration status is that of an immediate relative of a US citizen. All his three children are US citizens because they were born on Saipan.

Children born in the CNMI automatically become US citizens, regardless of the ethnicity or nationality of their parents.

But Tabora told GMANews.TV that he is not too worried about losing his IR status because his youngest son, who just turned 21, petitioned him to become a “green card" holder.

Danilo Domingo said if he loses his CNMI permanent residence status, his recourse will be his US citizen children who can petition him to become an IR and apply for a “green card" later on.

But Domingo said he feels for long-time Filipino contract workers, IRs and other permanent residents whose children are still younger than 21 and therefore cannot petition them to become “green card" holders.

Petition

A group consisting mainly of Filipino relatives of US citizens and Filipino-Americans has been circulating a signature drive seeking to allow US citizens who are at least 18 years old to be able to petition their parents to become immediate relatives or IRs.

Only US citizens who are at least 21 years old are currently allowed to petition their parents to have an “IR" category under CNMI and US immigration statutes.

Daniel Buniag, adviser for the Coalition for Recognition, Equality and Advancement of American Ethnic Minorities (Cream), said their ongoing petition asks CNMI Governor Benigno R. Fitial to issue an executive conveying an “IR" status to parents of US citizen children aged 18 "on or before Nov. 1, 2009."

Buniag, of Angeles, Pampanga, said they have so far gathered some 250 signatures from parents of young US citizen children.

He said he and Cream are also willing to assist Filipinos and other foreign nationals in looking at options to be able to retain or secure a better immigration status beyond June 2009.

“Losing an immigration status is a major concern among many of Filipinos and other aliens in the CNMI. We may send a letter to the US Department of Homeland Security requesting it to protect their immigration status," Buniag said.

These days, the effect of the federal immigration law worries not only foreign contract workers and relatives of US citizens, but also local CNMI residents and private businesses especially because there is no telling yet as to whether non-US citizens currently on the islands will retain their immigration status.

At least one private law firm on Saipan, the Law Offices of Mailman & Kara, LLC, has started giving seminars to individuals and groups regarding the effects of the federal immigration law to their immigration status.

Still, other foreign workers who have been legally in the CNMI for 10 or more years are hoping that they will be automatically granted a “green card" or a better immigration status under a federal immigration system. - GMANews.TV
Go to comments