• By Pacific island Times News Staff

Manila seeks visa waivers, H-2B access to Guam

A high-level palace official from the Philippines concurs with Guam’s top advisor on foreign affairs—that now is the time to reactivate robust economic and cultural exchanges between his country and the U.S. territory.

There is mutual agreement between the neighboring destinations that current conditions should soon ripen towards U.S. visa waivers for an increasingly affluent Philippine citizenry wishing to visit Guam and unimpeded employment visas for qualified workers seeking jobs here. And that lifting present barriers will go a long way toward advancing shared benefits between the US Department of Defense and the people of Guam and the Philippines.

Retired Philippine Court of Appeals Associate Justice Francisco P. “Nick” Acosta is now a cabinet member of the Duterte Administration in the Philippines, serving as Secretary of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.

Gutierrez Acosta: Secretary Nick Acosta and Chief Advisor Carl Gutierrez at a private dinner on Guam on Tuesday night, July 30, 2019.

His commendation is for current Guam Gov. Lourdes A. “Lou” Leon Guerrero and former two-term Guam governor Carl T.C. Gutierrez, who now serves as Gov. Leon Guerrero’s chief advisor on Economic Development, National and International Affairs.

Acosta was in Guam this past week as a result of Gutierrez’s multiple missions to the Philippines and regular correspondence with the Duterte government since March of this year. During an informal reception at Malacanang Palace in April, Gutierrez enlisted the endorsement of Salvador C. Medialdea— President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Secretary—for the formation of a Philippines-Guam Visa Task Force.

“In fact, during my visit, I asked Executive Secretary Medialdea to appoint a high-level attache to represent the Philippines in pursuit of a joint effort to persuade the US government to grant visa waivers to Philippine citizens wishing to visit US Guam while loosening onerous restrictions on Filipino skilled workers seeking employment here on island,” Gutierrez said.

The chief advisor went on to thank Acosta for his momentous visit. “We just couldn’t be more grateful!” Gutierrez said. “To have someone of Secretary Acosta’s stature visit Guam is really so much more than I expected! His special diplomatic mission tells me that Malacanang values this relationship as much as Adelup and the people of Guam do,” he said.

Gutierrez organized a dinner meeting for Secretary Acosta, Philippine Consul General to Guam Marciano R. De Borja, and Vice Consul Alex O. Vallespin. Among guests were Black Construction Corporation’s Senior Vice President and General Manager Leonard K. Kaee and Vice President of Accounting & Finance Mark J. Mamczarz, both representing Guam contractors affected by the problematic H-2B process. The dinner took place Tuesday, July 30th, at Hotel Nikko in Tumon, where discussion focused on H-2B issues.

“Since my request for a high-level appointment, our consulate here has received instructions to work with our administration to facilitate acquisition of a Philippine visa waiver,” Gutierrez said. “Consul General De Borja has the go-ahead from Malacanang to begin working with Adelup and is now awaiting formalization of a collaborative working group to be promulgated by Governor Leon Guerrero.”

L-R, front row: Leonard K. Kaee, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Black Construction Corp., Marciano R. De Borja, Philippine Consul General; Justice Francisco "Nick" Acosta (Ret.), Secretary, Commission on Filipinos Overseas. L-R, back row: Jeffrey T. Marchesseault, Industry Development Specialist, GEDA (EDNIA); Greg Massey, Administrator, Alien Labor Processing and Certification Division, Guam Dept. of Labor; Philippine Vice Consul Alex O. Vallespin; Mark J. Mamczarz, Vice President of Accounting & Finance, Black Construction; Jesse Garcia, Deputy Director of Dept. of Public Works; Fe Vallencia-Ovalles, Board of Directors, GEDA; Ed Camacho, Business and Economic Development Manager, GEDA (EDNIA).

Acosta intimated to Gutierrez on Tuesday that remittances from the worldwide diaspora of Filipino workers had helped to end the feast-and-famine conditions between seedtime and twice-annual harvest in the Philippines decades ago. The Secretary told Gutierrez he remains grateful that the money kababayans send back home accounts for as much as ten percent of the Philippines’ gross national product.

Current visa restrictions on Philippine passport holders stem in part from federally reported 40 percent overstay rates in the US mainland at a time when qualified construction workers are sorely needed for capital improvement projects in civilian villages across Guam. But Filipino overstay rates in Guam are reportedly only three percent, not nearly as steep as in the American mainland, where human trafficking is a suspected culprit. It is hoped that by January of next year, the Philippines will be back on the US Federal Register’s list of nations pre-cleared for H-2A (temporary agricultural) and H-2B (non-agricultural skilled worker) visa permitting. Shy of that, Adelup and local contractors are hoping Guam will soon be exempted from the federal rule.

Meanwhile, a local population increase of thousands is expected as a result of Guam’s ensuing $8.7 billion US military buildup, rising demand for hotel rooms by regional travelers who are turned away from the island by the tens of thousands during peak vacation seasons, and migration and job growth from new economic activity.

The federal government has approved up to 4,000 H-2B workers per year for construction projects within Guam’s military bases, but local contractors have grown gun-shy about hiring Overseas Filipino Workers due to costly new foreign-labor petitioning and application restrictions as well as US federal turn-down rates of up to 100 percent in recent years. The total denial of new H-2B visas had stemmed from a growing federal perception that the Guam contracting community had repeatedly failed to demonstrate a ‘temporary need’ litmus test that ‘should have’ sooner led to the training of an adequate local workforce. Nevertheless, some builders have bit the bullet and taken the recruitment plunge, resulting in about 900 OFWs now on island and roughly 600 more already approved for work migration. It has been estimated that by 2022 or 2023, Guam will need as many as 6,000 to 7,000 skilled workers to meet the labor needs of the island’s buildup era.

Although Acosta’s responsibilities are more all-encompassing than that of an attache, the high-level secretarial visit to Guam is evidence that the Duterte Administration is prioritizing the wellbeing of the Philippines’ centuries-old cultural and commercial connections to Guam. It is also clear that Malacanang values a mutually advantageous relationship with a territory whose handsome construction wages, favorable working conditions, and US regulations have become a coveted prize for the Philippines’ highly qualified class of skilled workers.

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