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Pinoy Abroad

Options to prevent mass exodus of Pinoy workers in CNMI after 2014

April 11, 2012 10:10am
SAN VICENTE, Saipan – The expected mass exodus after 2014 in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) of over 11,000 foreign workers, mostly from the Philippines, will not likely happen, an officer of a workers association said.

Jun Concillado, vice president of the United Workers Movement-NMI told GMA News Online on Monday that there are several options to prevent the mass exodus of workers who could be affected by CNMI's immigration law.

According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website, "On May 8, 2008, the Consolidated Natural Resources Act (CNRA) was signed into law. The CNRA extends most provisions of US immigration law to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (the CNMI) for the first time in history."

"The transition period for implementation of US immigration law in the CNMI began on November 28, 2009, and is scheduled to end on December 31, 2014," the USCIS said.

The transitional regulations allow employers in the CNMI to sponsor nonimmigrant workers who otherwise would be ineligible to work under the INA.

It gives foreign workers until 2014 to determine an appropriate long-term immigration status for themselves and their families. 

Foreign workers in CNMI, mostly Filipinos, work as nurses, engineers, architects, teachers, certified public accountants, journalists, auto-mechanics, electricians, computer experts, waiters, hotel employees, farmers, housemaids, technicians, repairmen, and construction workers.

Concillado said: “Filipinos here are not really scared about what’s going to happen after 2014.  Most of us know that there are options for us to continue to live and work here.  If there’s someone who should really be scared, it should be the CNMI because they would lose the thousands of qualified foreign workers if none of the options available is acted on.” 

Concillado, who hails from Caloocan, has been general manager for a construction business in the CNMI capital of Saipan for 17 years.

He said one option to prevent the mass exodus is the extension of the transition to full federal immigration system beyond 2014.
 
This means that Commonwealth-only workers (CW), will still be able to work and live in the CNMI for up to five years or until 2019.

Other options
 
“There is also the option of applying for parole in place or humanitarian parole that will allow those who just lost jobs to remain here and still be given a chance to look for a job,” Concillado said.
 
Eligible foreign workers could also apply for – and be granted -- nonimmigrant or immigrant visa classifications available under the Immigration and Nationality Act such as H or L visas, to continue working in the CNMI. 
 
These are the same visas required among those working in the US mainland.

On the other hand, Wendy Doromal, a Florida-based human rights activist, said “instead of trying to haphazardly run a CNMI-only federal immigration program to regulate foreign workers-most of whom have lived and worked in the CNMI for many years and decades-why not cut the expenses and eliminate the suffering by granting permanent residency to the legal, long-term foreign workers?”
 
Doromal, a former CNMI teacher, said there is “absolutely no reason” to extend the transition period after 2014.
 
“Why continue an expensive and unorganized CNMI-only guest worker program that represents just another bureaucratic nightmare for the workers? Give them permanent residency now and end the need to continue the program,” she added.
 
Reynaldo Gozon, 55, said he does not qualify for an H visa right now, and doesn't think he will qualify either in two years' time.
 
“The easiest option could be extension of transition, although of course I’d prefer having the US Congress granting us improved status,” Gozon said.
 
A native of Agusan Del Sur, Gozon said he came to Saipan in 1997 to work as a heavy equipment operator.  He now works as a ground maintenance employee.
 
As long as his employer needs his service, he would stay put, Gozon said.
 
Rene Reyes, founding president of the Marianas Advocates for Humanitarian Affairs Ltd. or Mahal, said “it's not being selfish if foreign workers wish to have improved status.”
 
“They still want to continue to contribute to the local economy,” he said.
 
Precilla Villafuerte, 39, said she’s not after an improved immigration status such as “green card,” but only wishes to continue working in the CNMI beyond 2014 and be with her minor US citizen daughter.
 
In her view, the easiest way to allow over 11,000 foreign workers to remain as contributors to the CNMI economy is to extend the transition period.
 
“For me, I just want to work here, be with my child and be able to help my family back home,” Villafuerte told GMA News Online.
 
Villafuerte, who hails from Rosario, Cavite, came to Saipan in 1992 to work as a sewer in a garment factory.  She used to sew clothing for global brands such as Gap, Ann Taylor and Banana Republic.
 
However, when garment factories on Saipan starting pulling out one by one and moved to Asian countries where minimum wage is much lower, Villafuerte was forced to start working as a housemaid.
 
The Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organization in the CNMI, is also supporting an extension of the transition period so that they can continue to have access to much-needed foreign workers.
 
“It's simply easier to follow the law than change it. Make no mistake about it. There's no way to replace those eventual 12,000 CW-1 holders with qualified U.S. workers in the CNMI. Certainly not when this economy begins to improve, which it will,” Richard Pierce, executive director of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.
 
Pierce said it would take greater critical mass, “and therefore be less attainable, to pass federal legislation for any change in status for those CW-1 visa holders allowing them to stay and work in the CNMI after 2014, than to simply extend the transition period another five, or 10, years as currently allowed under P.L. 110-229.”  
 
Another option is for the U.S. Congress to grant outright U.S. citizenship to long-term legal foreign workers in the CNMI, or pathway to citizenship such as “green card” or permanent residence status before the end of 2014.
 
But this has been met with resistance mainly from the CNMI government. 
 
They said the U.S. government should not give special favors of improved immigration status to foreign workers just because they worked and stayed too long in the CNMI.
 
Still on the table is passage of Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan’s (Ind-MP) bill, H.R. 1466, granting “CNMI-only resident status” to four groups of nonresidents, including foreign parents of minor U.S. citizen children.
 
This controversial bill, however, has yet to be passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, before going to the Senate and then to President Barack Obama.
 
The U.S. government could also return control of local immigration to the CNMI, said Representative Ray Yumul. 
 
CNMI Governor Benigno R. Fitial has been advocating for extension of the transition period beyond 2014.
 
“We recognize that the Commonwealth has yet to establish a fully viable resident workforce,” he said. - VVP, GMA News
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