By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Feds: Philippine labor necessary for military buildup on Guam, CNMI
Territorial leaders elated at the Philippines' reinstatement to H2-B program
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has lifted the ban on Philippine labor, reinstating the country's eligibility for the H-2B program in the final rule that applies to Guam and the CNMI where the Department of Defense is expanding military presence.
"The U.S. military realignment away from Japan and subsequent military construction on Guam requires a sizeable workforce that cannot be sustained by the local workforce in Guam," the DHS stated in the final rule posted on the Federal Register.
Federal officials have determined the Philippines' inclusion in the H-2B non-immigrant visa program "is in the U.S. interest."
The new rule paves the way for construction companies on Guam and the CNMI to resume their recruitment of workers from their main source of manpower in Asia.
"According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the need for more labor to work in military construction is likely to grow significantly in the next five years," DHS states. "Additionally, the influx of military personnel and activity on Guam will cause a surge in demand in the civilian construction sector (i.e., homes, expansion of hospitals, commercial projects, etc.)."
DHS said the U.S. Department of Interior continues to register Guam's and the CNMI's significant dependence on Philippine workers to supplement the essential components of their workforce.
"As such, to ensure the labor needs of the U.S. military realignment projects in Guam and the labor shortages experienced in the CNMI are met properly, adding the Philippines to the H-2B eligible countries list serves the U.S. interest," DHS said.
Guam and CNMI leaders are elated at the federal government's move.
“Since we began office, Josh and I stressed the importance of skilled labor from the Philippines to our growing economy,” said Governor Lou Leon Guerrero.
“However, with the help of our federal partners in the Department of Defense and the Department of Interior, as well as the advocacy of Delegate San Nicolas, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledges the necessity of the Philippine labor force for our growing economy.”
The H-2B visa program allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural and nonagricultural jobs.
In 2019, DHS banned the Philippines from the H2-B program, citing the country’s high rate of visa overstay and high volume of human trafficking. The 2019 policy has exacerbated the labor shortage on Guam and the CNMI.
Guam has been experiencing a labor crisis since the US Citizenship and Immigration Service removed the island’s exemption from the 66,000 annual visa cap in December 2015. Work visa approval rate went down from 95 percent to zero in the succeeding years.
In 2018, the National Defense Authorization Act authorizes the USCIS to approve up to 4,000 H2B visa applications but only for projects that are related to the military buildup.
“The distinction of ‘inside the fence’ and ‘outside the fence’ does not and cannot work for Guam. This Administration’s One Guam approach has always argued that our economic stability is a national security issue,” Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio said. “As we begin to address the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Lou and I are satisfied with this action and remain optimistic in our recovery.”
Sen. Telena Cruz Nelson, chair of the Committee on Federal and Foreign Relations, said the federal government’s move “opens the door to re-igniting the significant and essential contributions of skilled workers in our construction industry.”
In the CNMI, Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres said the restoration of the Philippines’ standing in the federal labor program is a “welcome news for our community,” which is undergoing a post-typhoon rehabilitation against the backdrop of acute labor shortage.
“The Philippines has always been an important resource for the CNMI’s workforce needs, especially in light of our critical demand for construction labor to support the mobilization of federal relief funds following the widespread damage caused by Super Typhoon Yutu,” Torres said.
The governor also noted that several large-scale projects that have been approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA will require a substantial construction workforce to accomplish within the coming years.
“Given our geographic proximity to Asia and the limitations on sourcing labor in other non-listed countries in the region, the Philippines remains a key source country for skilled and able construction laborers to fill our urgent needs,” Torres said.
Labor export is the Philippines' main industry and a major source of the country’s foreign exchange inflows, averaging 8.9 percent of gross national product over the past five years and more than 23 percent of export earnings.