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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Guam, CNMI seek exemption from Philippine workers ban

Leon Guerrero, Torres testify before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Raph Torres and Lou Leon Guerrero with First Genteam Jeffrey Cook

Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres on Tuesday made an official appeal before a U.S. Senate panel, seeking to exempt the two territories from the federal government’s decision to ban skilled workers from the Philippines.

“The Department of Homeland Security’s recent administrative action that removed the Philippines from a list of countries eligible for the H-2B program effective Jan. 19, 2019 affects us greatly,” Leon Guerrero told members of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“Many in this committee are familiar with the CNMI’s labor struggles,” Torres said in his testimony.

CNMI Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres with Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and First Gentleman Jeffrey Cook. Photo courtesy of the CNMI Governor's Office

The Philippines is a major source of manpower for Guam and the CNMI, which are both experiencing a construction boom.

The Department of Defense is at the height of building new base facilities in preparation for the $8-billion military buildup. Outside the fence, civilian developers have planned projects to build new hotels to accommodate increased tourism and supplement the lodging needs of military personnel.

Many of these projects have been put on hold when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service stopped issuing H-2B visas for Guam in December 2015. The Philippine workers ban has exacerbated the labor crisis.

The CNMI is in the rehabilitation mode, rebuilding houses and repairing facilities damaged by a series of typhoons that plowed through Saipan, Tinian and Rota last year.

“As Congress considers the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, I ask for legislative or administrative clarification that Guam, along with our sister territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, be exempted from prohibitions in accessing foreign labor from the Philippines,” Leon Guerrero said.

She noted that Guam’s military and civilian growth has been supported by foreign skilled labor and considering Guam’s close proximity to the Philippines, local employers have come to rely on this country as the primary source of supplementary skilled labor.

“While the new policy provides the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with discretion on a case-by-case basis to approve H-2B petitions that serve the national interest, including petitions that qualify under section 1045 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2019, it is clear that the ban on foreign skilled labor from the Philippines will have a detrimental impact in Guam,” she added.

The earliest wave of skilled workers from the Philippines came to Guam during the reconstruction period after World War II.

From 1,500 prior to the 2015 visa denials, the H-2B workforce on Guam dwindled to 252 in 2017 and 71 in 2018. In May 2018, Guam reached “an unprecedented zero H-2B workers on the island,” Leon Guerrero said.

The FY 2019 NDAA partially addressed this issue through Section 1045, but such language primarily was passed to ensure that the U.S. military and its projects funded by military construction dollars, maintained access to foreign labor. However, uncertainty of approvals on the civilian side has led to delays in ongoing projects and discouraged contractors from bidding on new ones,” Leon Guerrero said.

“This scenario has driven up construction costs, stifling private sector development and causing irreparable harm to the local economy and the military buildup,” she added.

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In excluding the Philippines from the H2B program, the Department of Homeland Security cited

a national 40 percent overstay rate and a high volume of trafficking of visa holders from the former U.S. colony.

“This is not the case for Guam. The island’s rate of H-2B workers who intentionally overstay is negligible and there are no known trafficking cases involving Philippine citizens,” Leon Guerrero said.

For his part, Torres cited the American Red Cross damage assessment which found that 5,910 homes were destroyed or suffered major damage after Yutu hit Saipan and Tinian on Oct. 25 last year. Rebuilding safe and resilient homes is one of his “most urgent priorities,” he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently approved a permanent housing construction program that will source and provide labor and materials to reconstruct the homes of eligible households.

The program has received 9,400 applicants and “FEMA is in the process of looking toward bringing in labor from outside the CNMI because of the lack of local manpower,” Torres said.

“In this situation, the prohibition of CW-1 positions for new construction workers combined with the federal government’s position that the majority of construction contractors are ineligible to source their labor through the H2-B process, will result in fewer safe and sanitary homes in the CNMI,” Torres said.

“What should be of great concern is the wide-ranging implications that will follow for socio- economic mobility, education, and health throughout the islands. Down the road this will require even greater federal resources to support these families,” he added.

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