February 21, 2014
Under the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, U.S. P.L. 110-229, the CNMI is to be transitioned to the U.S. immigration system. The transitional CNMI guest worker program is set to expire on December 31, 2014 unless the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor extends it.
The law states:
(5)(A) Not later than 180 days prior to the expiration of the transition period, or any extension thereof, the Secretary of Labor, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Governor of the Commonwealth, shall ascertain the current and anticipated labor needs of the Commonwealth and determine whether an extension of up to 5 years of the provisions of this subsection is necessary to ensure an adequate number of workers will be available for legitimate businesses in the Commonwealth. For the purpose of this subparagraph, a business shall not be considered legitimate if it engages directly or indirectly in prostitution, trafficking in minors, or any other activity that is illegal under Federal or local law. The determinations of whether a business is legitimate and to what extent, if any, it may require alien workers to supplement the resident workforce, shall be made by the Secretary of Homeland Security, in the Secretary's sole discretion.
(B) If the Secretary of Labor determines that such an extension is necessary to ensure an adequate number of workers for legitimate businesses in the Commonwealth, the Secretary of Labor may, through notice published in the Federal Register, provide for an additional extension period of up to 5 years.
(C) In making the determination of whether alien workers are necessary to ensure an adequate number of workers for legitimate businesses in the Commonwealth, and if so, the number of such workers that are necessary, the Secretary of Labor may consider, among other relevant factors--
(i) government, industry, or independent workforce studies reporting on the need, or lack thereof, for alien workers in the Commonwealth's businesses;
(ii) the unemployment rate of United States citizen workers residing in the Commonwealth;
(iii) the unemployment rate of aliens in the Commonwealth who have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence;
(iv) the number of unemployed alien workers in the Commonwealth;
(v) any good faith efforts to locate, educate, train, or otherwise prepare United States citizen residents, lawful permanent residents, and unemployed alien workers already within the Commonwealth, to assume those jobs;
(vi) any available evidence tending to show that United States citizen residents, lawful permanent residents, and unemployed alien workers already in the Commonwealth are not willing to accept jobs of the type offered;
(vii) the extent to which admittance of alien workers will affect the compensation, benefits, and living standards of existing workers within those industries and other industries authorized to employ alien workers; and
(viii) the prior use, if any, of alien workers to fill those industry jobs, and whether the industry requires alien workers to fill those jobs.An extension of five years for the problematic guest worker program would be disastrous. If no immigration reform bill passes by June 2014, it would be wise for the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor to extend the program for only one year. Nothing in the law states it has to be renewed for five more hell-filled years.
Under any just guest worker program a pathway to citizenship is provided. There is no such provision in the CNMI guest worker program. In reality, the U.S. does not have a workable, just guest worker program, including the CNMI's transitional one.
The longterm nonresident workers, most of whom have lived and worked in the CNMI for 5 or more years, many for decades, would like to be granted permanent residency status, which would make an extension of the program unnecessary.
If the legal, longterm nonresident workers were to be granted the permanent residency status that they deserve, there would be no need to extend the transitional guest worker program. The CNMI would have the skilled workforce that it needs.
Governor Inos, Delegate Sablan, the Chamber of Commerce and business community want to see the program extended. Yet, they also have supported upgraded status for the legal nonresident workers. The only decent and ethical action is to push for permanent residency status, rather than to push for an extension of an expensive guest worker program that has caused uncertainty and insecurity for employees and employers.
The private sector is made up of over 90% nonresident workers who are disenfranchised and are routinely denied basic civil, human and political rights. They are grossly underpaid, and are often cheated by their employers. If everyone were to be truthful they would admit that the majority of the positions that nonresident workers have filled for decades are not 'temporary' at all. In fact, there are very few U.S. citizens or permanent residents in the CNMI willing to accept many of the low paying, labor intensive jobs that nonresidents fill. That is why they have been renewed annually year after year to fill those positions.
Even if every U.S. citizen who lives in the CNMI were to accept a position that is now filled by a nonresident worker, numerically, there are just not enough U.S. citizens living in the CNMI to fill every one. Furthermore, there are not enough U.S. citizens in the CNMI who have the skills needed to fill many of the positions. That is the reality.
The CNMI-only guest worker program is expensive and problematic for both employers and nonresident employees. Costly fees, annual renewal applications and the length of time it takes to process applications and issue the CW permits create unnecessary hardships for all involved. Granting permanent residency to the legal, longterm nonresidents would virtually eliminate the need for the flawed program.
U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez should look at the entire picture. He should review the history of the CNMI and U.S. Guest worker programs. He should investigate the status and plight of the legal, longterm nonresident workers and their families who will be greatly impacted by his decision. He should recognize that the majority of the nonresident workers have lived in the CNMI for more than 5 years, many for decades, and in reality are not 'temporary' workers, but de facto citizens who are essential to the community and economy. He should study all of the numbers and weigh all of the issues and considerations outlined in P.L. 110-229. In the end, before making any decision on an extension, he should weigh the material and human costs to the U.S. and CNMI Governments, to the employers and to the employees.
Extending the program is merely extending the problems. Again, if a bill providing status for the legal, longterm nonresident workers is not passed by the end of July, then the Labor Secretary should renew the program for the least amount of time that is feasible, which is probably a year.
The only moral solution is to grant permanent residency status to the legal, longterm nonresident workers. That is where the focus should be.