USCIS rejects CW petitions for over 100 nurses; NMI workforce bill faces delay in US House

THE CW petitions for 111 nurses, including nurse managers and supervisors of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., were not approved by  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to CHCC CEO Chief Executive Officer Esther Muna.

In related news, the administration said it has learned that the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee raised an issue in connection with a provision of S. 2325, or the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act, pertaining to the fees and charges to be added to the federal CW program.

A referral to Ways and Means could mean delay in the bill’s passage, the administration said on Wednesday.

“At this point, I have been informed that another alternative is possible but would entail additional delays in approval,” Gov. Ralph D.L.G. Torres said in a statement.

“The U.S House leadership has informed my office that another bill could be considered by the House and amended to include all of the Senate-passed language. Unfortunately, doing this would mean the Senate would have to vote again on the measure before sending it to the President for his signature. This alternative would mean a delay of weeks.”

The governor said he is requesting that U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan “speak with his colleagues in the House to hasten the approval of S.2325 and provide security for the businesses, organizations, and people who are relying on this bill as the October 1st start of the 2019 fiscal year approaches.”

The administration said it “believes this issue is beyond politics and credit. We need to use all of our resources to see a quick passage of this bill.”

Still optimistic

Muna said CHCC submitted CW petitions for 167 employees.  Only 19 were approved: two in corporate quality; three laboratory staff; two in control quality; four in the dialysis section; five pharmacists; one ultrasound sonographer; one radiologist; and one nurse on Rota.

Muna said she met with the nurses and the other hospital staff on Monday and assured them that CHCC is “working on a solution to keep them on-board.”

She said the nurses are still optimistic that the NMI Workforce Act will become law. “They know that we will re-petition as soon as the law allows us to do so,” she added.

“There is still hope,” Muna said, referring to S.2325 which proposes, among other things, to extend the federal CW program for 10 years after Dec. 2019 and increase the CW cap to 13,000 which is two more than the fiscal year 2017 cap. The cap would then be gradually reduced over a 10-year period.

“We will wait for the decision of the U.S. Congress,” Muna said.  “But if the bill does not become law by the end of June, some of the nurses said their optimism would begin to fade.”

CHCC’s human resources department has been working to transition nurses with CW permits to employment-based  or EB status, Muna said, adding that  EB and H1B visas for qualified personnel are being processed already.

CHCC public information officer Sami Birmingham-Babauta said the healthcare corporation recognizes a dire need for local health worker capacity.

CHCC  is working to achieve this goal by improving the pay scale for nurses, she said, adding that  this will encourage nursing graduates both locally and abroad to choose employment with CHCC.

She said the hospital has also implemented a program that enables graduate nurses to be employed and obtain hands-on experience while studying for the NCLEX. The program is extended to all NMC nursing students. 

“Despite these efforts, there is still limited local capacity and any loss of our health-profession workers will severely hinder CHCC’s ability to provide services,” Birmingham-Babauta said.

“When granting CW-1 permits, health-profession workers should be prioritized as a critical need of the commonwealth and of the community. CHCC is pursuing other solutions to avoid disruption of critical health services.”

Upset

Rep. Angel Demapan, the NMI Republican candidate for U.S. Congress, said  people’s lives must not be determined by a lottery, referring to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ decision to conduct a lottery in determining who will get CW permits.

USCIS reduced the fiscal year 2017 CW cap to 9,999 from 12,998, and then to 4,999 in FY 2019.

“What do we do? It is not just an economic issue. We are talking about people’s lives here, our patients and the hospital,” Demapan said. “I don’t think our people’s lives should be determined by a lottery. I think more should have been done at the federal level, by USCIS. We could have prevented this from happening. We could have addressed this issue through U.S. legislation years ago…. Time and energy should have been invested in making sure we don’t get to this point — that we don’t jeopardize the lives of our people and the patients at the hospital.  No matter how we look at it, we had a lot of years to work on this issue in the U.S. Congress.  But we failed because we passed bills that are for the short term only.  If anyone is to point to political parties and politics, we must not forget the years of Democratic leadership in the U.S. Congress and the Democratic White House — that should have been enough time to fix all of these issues.”

(With Cherrie Anne E. Villahermosa)