CNMI Foreign Workers Still Waiting On Federal Permit Approval
By Haidee V. Eugenio
SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, July 2, 2012) – More than 7,600 foreign workers that Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) employers need for their businesses are still without approved Commonwealth-only worker (CW) petition as of June 26, even as the Fitial administration and the Saipan Chamber of Commerce are pushing for a five-year extension of the immigration federalization transition period ending Dec. 31, 2014 to still have access to skilled foreign labor to help run the local economy.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services regional media manager Marie Therese Sebrechts said on Saturday that from Oct. 7 through June 26, the California Service Center had data entered for 5,763 I-129CW petitions.
The petitions were filed by approximately 1,803 different employers on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.
A total of 11,809 CW1 workers are sponsored on these petitions.
"A total of 2,530 petitions were approved consisting of 4,125 beneficiaries," Sebrechts said.
The 4,125 with approved CW permits represent almost 35 percent of the total number of foreign workers petitioned.
Looked the other way, that means some 65 percent or 7,684 of foreign workers have CW petitions that remain pending.
Sebrechts said 68 petitions were denied, consisting of 78 beneficiaries.
"Waiting for response to RFE [request for evidence] -1,123," she added.
Some of the foreign workers with still pending CW petitions said they remain uncertain about their immigration status some six months since the original Jan. 31 self-imposed deadline to adjudicate all applications.
Gov. Benigno R. Fitial earlier told Saipan Tribune that one of the administration's frustrations with the federal government is the long time it takes for the federal government to process all CW petitions, placing businesses and employees in limbo.
Lucy Salazar, 57, said she has been holding off on her planned vacation until she gets her CW permit. She said her CW petition was filed in late-December, and she has been waiting for more than six months now. She said she's done with the biometrics.
"The last time I went on vacation to see my family and relatives was in 2008; I can't wait to see them again," Salazar, a kitchen steward at M.V. Reyes Catering, told Saipan Tribune in an interview at the Sabalu Market in Susupe on Saturday.
Salazar has been working on Saipan for 21 years, starting as a garment factory sewer until the garment industry closed down.
"I believe there are four of us in our company holding off on our vacation because we don't have our CW permits yet. Only a few in our company received their permits. Most are still waiting. I'm hoping we don't have to wait any longer," she said.
Maria Calimag, 56, said she got her CW permit in February, two months after filing. She said because she's been working legally on Saipan for 23 years, she is still hoping that all long-term foreign workers in the CNMI will be granted improved status by the federal government.
"I think I was among the first few who received their CW permits early. I am thankful. I hope the federal government will be able to issue the CW permits to all who were petitioned," said Calimag, working at Barney's Pizza and Catering.
Calimag came to Saipan in 1989 to work as a garment factory sewer earning $2.15 an hour at the time. She worked at three different garment factories until the industry folded. Some 23 years later as a worker in the CNMI, Calimag said she is still earning minimum wage, now at $5.05 an hour.
The Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organization in the CNMI with some 150 members, told the U.S. Government Accountability Office that the CNMI economic meltdown will worsen without transitional CW workers at the end of the transition period on Dec. 31, 2014. The group supports a five-year extension of the transition period.
GAO, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, will be issuing a report on the transition period and impacts of not extending it, among other things.
Fitial also supports extending the transition period, saying the local labor pool will still not be enough to fill the positions held by all legal foreign workers in the CNMI by the end of 2014.
Given the number of foreign workers petitioned for CW status, it means close to 12,000 foreign workers are still needed by private sector employers.
Fitial also wanted the federal government to give back local control of CNMI immigration.
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