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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Who will take these jobs?

“It’s going down and down daily,” said Greg Massey, administrator of the Guam Department of Labor’s Alien Labor Processing and Certification Division. He was referring to the number of H2 workers on island, which has dipped to 139 as of April, from 1,463 last year.

While Guam may be familiar with acute labor shortage, the past two years have been particularly overtaxing for the island that is largely dependent on foreign manpower. The military buildup and phenomenal surge in tourism entail massive construction. There is a long roster of multimillion dollar projects — hitting close to $1 billion — that are in various stages of development. Some are ongoing, others are shovel-ready, and still others are about to start — or not.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ clampdown on the H2 B program for Guam is threatening to bring the island’s economic activity on pause. Some developers have actually pulled the brakes on their projects after sending home hundreds of foreign workers whose visas were not renewed, and failing to secure visas for new workers.

“We have 5,000 U.S. workers on Guam and about 20 percent of traditional workers being H2,” Massey said at the Guam Chamber of Commerce meeting on April 26 “This core group we are using are carpenters, mason and rebar guys— the ones doing concrete jobs.”

According to the U.S. Navy’s environmental impact statement, the operative number of required workers at the peak of the military buildup is 5,000 people. “There is no way we can train up to 5,000 in two to three years. That is why the H2B program is important,” Massey said.

There has been zero visa approval since last year, Massey said.

While the feds insist there is no change in the way it processes H2 visa applications, its actions in the past year and half proved otherwise. In December 2015, the trend in denying visa petitions and renewals became noticeable. “By April 2016, it seems clear that there was an issue,” said Melinda Swavely, who has been an immigration lawyer for more than 30 years. “The denial rate is 100 percent from 95 percent in the past 15 years. If they have not changed any policy, how can we have such as reversal in the results?”

Local officials and business leaders’ appeal and attempts to resolve the visa issue in Washington D.C. But subsequent discussions hit a wall. This prompted the Guam Contractors Association along with other entities to take the federal government to court in October last year. The litigation is ongoing in federal court. The U.S. government is seeking the dismissal of the lawsuit.

“If there is a new policy, then they didn’t go through the appropriate procedures,” Swavely said. “On the other hand, if there is no new policy, then the agencies are acting in arbitrary and capricious way.”

Historically, Guam was exempted from the 66,000 H2 visa a year quota nationwide in consideration of the military buildup vis-a-vis the island’s scarce labor pool.

But the feds claim Guam has pushed its luck, accusing employers of corrupting the H2B program. “USCIS is basically saying that everyone applying for H2B has to be temporary. There is a definition of what is temporary,” Massey said. “There is a lot of statements out there is an abuse of system because jobs are not temporary on Guam. Construction work begins and ends when the project ends. But (the feds) changed their interpretation.”

Over the years, the local government and the construction industry have been introducing apprenticeship and incentive programs to lure local workers into the trade sector. There have been few takers, however. Despite the promise of sure employment, careers in construction don’t seem to appeal to local residents.

H2B doesn’t apply only to construction jobs. Some of the applications were for healthcare positions and specialty skills. “The core issue is that the USCIS say these jobs are not temporary,” Massey said.

The idea of bringing U.S. workers from the mainland—if they will come to Guam at all— can be quite more problematic for an island with limited, Massey said. “If we bring 5,000 workers and their families to Guam, you can’t send them back to the mainland when the projects are done. They might end up being on welfare,” Massey said.

Swavely said there are indications Guam is being singled out. “That’s why we need to push this litigation,” she said.

Gov. Eddie Calvo has ordered the office of the attorney general to prepare the administration’s participation in the lawsuit. His new policy statement in response to the visa clampdown has been quite more dramatic. Speaking at the Rotary Club of Guam’s luncheon meeting at the Pacific Star Resort last month, Ccalvo announced Guam’s withdrawal of support for the military buildup. “The federal government has pushed us to this point. We worked so hard to build a local economy that is strong without the military buildup,” Calvo said. “And after all that hard work, the federal government is now doing everything it can — exercising its enormous powers — to put a halt to all local progress.”

But as far as the Guam Chamber of Commerce is concerned, the govero;s new policy is not an option. “We too are also very concerned about the high rate of denials of the H-2B foreign worker’s visas; however we don’t believe that removing support of the buildup is the ideal route to take,” the chamber said in a statement. “We believe the buildup is good for Guam both inside and outside the fence, and the H-2B visa labor shortage is bad for Guam both inside and outside the fence. As such, we should continue our One Guam Approach to find a solution to the labor issue for the benefit of all involved.”

Developers break ground on Medical Arts Center project in Dededo. Photo courtesy of Kevin Kerrigan

Guam’s plea for a visa denial reprieve may not jive with President Trump’s Hire American Agenda as he directed federal agencies to “take steps to stop the abuse of the immigration system and protect American workers.” In his Joint Address to Congress, Trump said “We will have two simple rules when it comes to this massive rebuilding effort, buy American and hire American.”

That policy might work in the mainland, Massey said, but not in Guam. “It’s kinda hard to do that in our isolated island,” he said.

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