Crisis, sketchy US immigration plan worry OFWs in Northern Marianas
These days, Duron and thousands of other overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) who try to supplement their income doing other chores have a bigger hurdle to face: What will happen to them once the US federal government takes over the CNMI immigration? Will they still be allowed to remain in the CNMI?
“42 na ako. Mahirap nang makahanap ng trabaho kung babalik ako sa Pilipinas. At paano na ang mga anak ko? Dito, libre ang tuition sa public school para sa mga anak ko (I’m now 42. It’s now hard to get a job if I go back to the Philippines. Here, public school tuition for my children is free)," a recently laid-off OFW told GMANews.TV.
The mother of four, who requested anonymity while she’s still looking for a legal job on the island, came to Saipan in 1995 to work at a garment factory that eventually closed.
To help her OFW husband whose salary was cut by 10 percent due to a dwindling economy, she baby sits other people’s children for $10 to $30 for at least three hours. She also collects jueteng bets at times.
“Ang alam ng pamilya ko sa Pilipinas, okay lang kami dito. Pero ayaw kong problemahin pa nila kami. Hindi naman sigurado kung ano ang mangyayari pag na federalize na ito (My family in the Philippines know we’re okay here. I don’t want to bother them. Nothing is certain once the CNMI immigration is federalized)," she added.
The CNMI, whose capital of Saipan is only about three hours away from Manila, is home to some 10,000 OFWs and Filipino-Americans.
As early as June 2009, the CNMI immigration system will be put under US federal control as a result of a law signed by President George Bush in May.
A record crowd consists mainly of OFWs and other Asian workers marched peacefully in December 2007 for the passage of the “federalization" bill, believing a federal immigration system will be better than a CNMI system.
Many foreign workers, especially those who have been legally working in the CNMI for at least five years, believe the new law will grant them permanent residency or a coveted “green card."
Barely six months before the transition period to the federal immigration system, OFWs and other foreign workers in the CNMI, along with the CNMI government itself and foreign investors, are at a loss as to what the future holds for them.
To date, the US government has yet to issue major details of its plans involving foreign workers in the CNMI once the transition period begins as early as June.
The US Department of Homeland Security, the agency tasked to lead the CNMI federalization move, recently issued its “semi-annual regulatory" plan (www.regulations.gov) stating that only the federal government, as required by law, will assume responsibility for visas for entry to the CNMI by nonresident workers.
The DHS plan also indicates there will be no chance of change to the provisions for foreign workers. “This rule is required by statute and alternatives were not considered," the document states.
US Public Law 110-229 or the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, which provides for the federal takeover of local immigration, states that a CNMI-only work permit program will be in effect during the transition period. The program can be extended indefinitely by the US Secretary of Labor for up to five years at a time.
Besides being able to hire “transitional" workers, employers in the CNMI and Guam can petition for foreign workers under the federal non-immigrant H visa process, without limitation by established numerical caps.
But after the transition period ends, all foreign workers in the CNMI must be under the federal visa system. H visas will no longer be available for workers in continuous, rather than temporary, low-skill positions.
During and after the transition period, CNMI employers can also petition for mployment-based permanent immigration status for workers under the same procedures as other US employers.
CNMI employers – many of them now losing much of their business – are wary that petitioning their foreign workers will be too costly and they will be forced to close their business altogether.
The governor of the CNMI, Benigno R. Fitial, has asked the US courts to stop DHS and the US Department of Labor from implementing the labor provisions of the federal immigration law, citing its grave impact on the local economy and the massive deportation of foreign workers.
DHS, in its recent report, says the effect of the immigration rule on the CNMI economy is “uncertain at this point."
The main driver for the law is the risks to homeland security which result from the lack of integrity in the CNMI immigration system, according to DHS, citing a US Senate report of the legislation.
In the meantime, OFWs in the CNMI go on with their lives amid a dwindling economy and an uncertain immigration status. - GMANews.TV