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    Wednesday, January 17, 2018-10:18:13A.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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NMBAC member on HR 339: ‘We feel misled’

(Press Release) — On the third day of Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp.’s trip to Washington, D.C., Gov. Ralph D.L.G. Torres and the Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp.’s officers and board members met with senior officials from the Department of Homeland Security and USCIS.  

Governor Torres and Alex Sablan presented a very detailed report to the officials and provided up to date information on the immediate impacts of the 3,000 reduction in CW1 visas for FY 2018. Every member of the NMBAC spoke about the hardships the denials were having on the economy, federal funded infrastructure projects, and families. The officials from USCIS continually expressed their understanding of our plight but stated they were bound by the laws passed by Congress. They restated language from the rule regarding the FY2018 CW-1 allocation that given the passage of H.R. 339, it was clear that construction workers would be the ones losing permits and not other industries.  

One of the first topics of discussion centered around USCIS’s interpretation of the construction ban included within H.R. 339. NMBA Chairman Sablan detailed instances where businesses who employ individuals to do general repairs are now being denied permits because they fit under the U.S. Department of Labor overall construction category which was used in H.R. 339. Sablan stated, “We have hotel maintenance workers who fix leaky faucets and CUC engineers who maintain the engines at our power plants, who are in danger of losing their permits.”  

NMBAC member Gloria Cavanagh said, “When the governor and business community endorsed the initial language in 2015, we believed the intent of the construction ban was only going to affect the additional CW permits requested for FY 2017.” Cavanagh continued “Additionally, under no scenario would we have supported a ban on maintenance or general handyman employees.”

When the NMBAC members asked if a letter from the author of the legislation to USCIS would help clarify the intent of Congress, we were informed that the intent of the author was very clear in his statement on the floor of the House of Representatives on August 15, 2017.    

The officials read to us the following passage from that statement: “The second provision intended to prevent a recurrence of the current crisis bars the use of the CW-1 permit for new workers in construction occupations. Existing construction companies with foreign works, who have been in their employ prior to fiscal year 2016, will be able to continue renewing the CW-1 permits of those specific individual workers. There are between 1,000 and 1,500 such individuals, I understand.”

Members of the Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp. pose with Gov. Ralph D.L.G. Torres and CNMI Labor Secretary Vicky I. Benavente at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.  NMBAC photo

The second sentence is what USCIS is using to support its interpretation of the pre-October 2015 exclusion being tied to an individual employer. It speaks of “companies” being “able to continue renewing the CW-1 permits” only for those workers “who have been in their [i.e., the companies’] employ prior to fiscal year 2016.”  

The floor statement went further and said that the construction permits ban should apply to “pending petitions” — i.e., those petitions for FY 2018 that had already been filed prior to August 2017 but haven’t yet been granted by USCIS.  

USCIS informed us that there could have been an open question as to whether the ban would apply to petitions filed prior the H.R. 339’s enactment (which would have been all construction workers’ petition that had any chance of being granted, since USCIS stopped taking applications by May 2017). But the statement pretty clearly rules that out.  

NMBAC member Perry Inos Jr. stated after the meeting “Clearly we were shocked that our argument about the original intent as presented to us was completely wrong. We feel misled.”

The meeting lasted approximately one hour during which time, the NMBAC and the governor received a commitment from USCIS that they would do a review of the denial process to ensure that permit applications from the construction classification were taken out of the total number of applications before they started issuing denials. While we informed them that some denials had already occurred because they exceeded the total number, USCIS stated they would get back to us on their internal review quickly.

Additionally, USCIS committed to working with Governor Torres on the legislation expected to be introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and while they are not allowed by law to “influence” legislation they would provide technical assistance in the drafting process and make themselves available at any time to answer questions.  

Finally, USCIS pledged to work with the governor’s office on the expediting of H2B applications and stated that 30 days is the typical time spent at DHS after receiving it from the Department of Labor. DHS is actively working with the Departments of Labor and State to streamline the process electronically in an effort to expedite applications.  

Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp. is a collaboration of private sector organizations working toward advocating for the “survival of the CNMI economy for all business in our islands”. Members of NMBAC in Washington, D.C. privately financed their respective travel.