Governor asks USCIS to waive temporary departure requirement for 54 healthcare workers

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CITING the devastating impact of losing front liners amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres is requesting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for a waiver and/or flexibility on 54 nonresident healthcare workers including nurses of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.

In his letter to Samantha Deshommes, Office of Policy and Strategy chief at the USCIS Regulatory Coordination Division, the governor said the healthcare workers’ second renewal period expires at the end of fiscal year 2020.

He said he understands that some of the concerns of the CNMI must be cured legislatively.

“However, where actions can be taken administratively to ameliorate the repercussions that will stem from the full implementation of the Interim Final Rule, your consideration and understanding is respectfully requested,” the governor said.

Last month, USCIS published the Interim Final Rule for U.S. Public Law 115-218 or the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act of 2018. It includes, among other provisions, a temporary departure requirement for CNMI-Only Transitional Workers visa holders at the expiration of their second renewal period.

The governor thanked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and USCIS for the consideration given to the recommendations of the CNMI immediately following the enactment of Public Law 115-218.

In his initial comments, the governor said he highlighted several provisions of the law that would be detrimental to the CNMI community if implemented without due consideration for the fragility of the small economy and labor force of the islands.

“While many of the recommendations provided in my initial comments were given appropriate consideration, I must reiterate my serious concern over a number of proposed actions, especially during the unprecedented circumstances we are currently experiencing with the ongoing global pandemic of the Coronavirus Disease 2019…. It is critical to recognize the context in which the CNMI government finds itself,” the governor said.

He said that soon after he declared a state of significant emergency on Jan. 29 over growing concerns of the Covid-19 outbreak in the region, all flights into the CNMI were ceased, terminating the only lifeline for the economy and government resources. The CNMI, he said, has no industry other than tourism and because of this vulnerability, this global pandemic has been felt harder within this community than any other in the nation, he added.

“With the collapse of the economy came two natural repercussions. First, the private sector, with tourists no longer travelling, were forced to let go of staff, both domestic and foreign to stay solvent. Very closely after, the CNMI government was similarly forced to undergo painful reforms and instituted widespread furloughs of government personnel. The Covid-19 pandemic will ease and business will return to normal,” he said.

“However, I am deeply concerned that the implementation of provisions in this rule will further set back the CNMI economy, prevent the full resumption of economic activity and further deepen the catastrophe that has befallen U.S. workers in our labor force because of the virus,” he added.

The governor said he wished to bring once more to the attention of USCIS the temporary departure requirement at the expiration of the second renewal period.

“In my initial comments, I stressed the difficulty this requirement will place on the CNMI economy due to the large proportion of the labor force falling under this requirement, and under the recognition that the 30-day period will inevitably result in labor shortages throughout the Commonwealth for periods up to, and in some cases, in excess of six months as petitions are adjudicated. According to the Government Accountability Office’s analysis of the number of foreign workers who received CW-1 permits for Fiscal Year 2019 and had maintained continuous employment in the CNMI, there may be approximately 33% CW-1 permit holders who will be required to undergo the Temporary Departure period,” the governor said.

“In any other circumstance, this impact to the labor force would be significant and warrant reconsideration. In the present scenario, with the unprecedented harm brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, this will be devastating. Already, businesses across the Commonwealth are closing their doors, never to reopen. The businesses that remain will have to contend with diminished demand and an outlook more uncertain than any other time in recent history. To add to these difficulties, their trained workforce will be required to depart for an indeterminate amount of time during a period in which government services will rely upon at least a partial resumption of economic activity,” the governor added.

He said he understands and recognizes that the intent of U.S. Public Law 115-218 is to assist the transition of the CNMI labor force to the national immigration system, and “it is the policy of my administration to ensure that the future labor force of these islands comprises skilled and competent local workers.”

“However,” he said, “enacting this provision, in this timeline, will do a great disservice to these goals in two primary ways. First, the increased costs of retaining existing employees will result in further business closures as it will compound the effects existing from the Covid-19 pandemic. The decrease in private sector activities will impact employment opportunities for U.S. workers, especially those who have been furloughed from government employment. What is likely, will be a mass outward migration of our local labor force to neighboring Guam or the U.S. mainland. This is what we lived through in the advent of U.S. Public Law 110-229 and has severely impacted our present-day ability to make sizable gains in the domestic workforce population. Secondly, an impact of this magnitude, coupled with the diminished demand present in today’s economy, will reduce the number of petitions for the CW-1 permit this fiscal year. While counterintuitive, this is harmful because as the CNMI government restructures and other commercial enterprises close, there will be a need for workforce retraining to transition out-of-work domestic employees.”

The governor said it is important to note that the only resources the CNMI receives to directly assist in the transition period originates from CW-1 petition fees.

“This provision, the impact it will have on commercial activity, and the decrease in labor demand through the program will reduce the resources the CNMI relies upon to train U.S. workers. Without additional resources, these U.S. workers will be greatly impacted and the CNMI’s progress toward transition will be severely stunted,” he said.

“The recognition that there are unique needs within the CNMI for foreign labor at the current juncture is apparent and I thank the department for agreeing with the reserved permits for critical healthcare positions under the CW-1 program. Yet, the temporary departure requirement is a complication in contrast to the intents of the law and will require the implementation of the departure period at a time the CNMI healthcare system can least afford a loss in labor force,” he said.

 The temporary departure requirement, he added, will affect 54 critical healthcare workers including registered nurses, and clinical laboratory scientists of the lone hospital in the CNMI.

“With the global pandemic still impacting health care systems around the world, the isolated and already diminished healthcare system of the CNMI will suffer greatly in the loss of these workers during their departure period,” the governor said.

“This is a period of tremendous uncertainty for the CNMI. The application of this provision, the lack of clarity as to the implementation of this provision, and the compounding impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic will result in a deluge of challenges that the CNMI economy may not be able to weather.

“I do not think it is improper or unwarranted to once again request consideration of the application of this provision in this time frame. I believe the facts and the interest of both this administration and the federal government in ensuring that U.S. workers are given a fair opportunity to succeed in this community demand that further thought, and consideration be afforded to this issue. This request is especially dire in the needs of the CNMI’s critical healthcare labor force. The current global context and unprecedented demand on our limited healthcare system are facts that must be accounted for in the implementation of this provision. At a minimum, I request your urgent consideration that a waiver and/or flexibility be applied for the 54 workers of our sole hospital whose second renewal period expires at the end of fiscal year 2020,” the governor said.


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