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OPINION | Four little words — or how Guam’s government handled a ticklish problem much better than the CNMI government did

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THE following appears in a form issued by the CNMI Labor Department:     

 

and it has caused all sorts of totally needless trouble for the CNMI government and a waste of money for both federal and local taxpayers.   This is a set of problems that is much less severe on Guam. 

It is a portion of the application for those federal benefits created by the Covid-19 crisis, including the prospect of an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits.

The difficulty with the form shown above is that it caused perhaps thousands of CNMI’s alien workers, those in the CW-1 class, to file for these benefits when they are not eligible for them, and reading between the lines, to apparently cause illegal payments made to many of them. 

The basic problem is that about half of the CNMI workforce consists of nonimmigrant workers, largely in the CW-1 class.  No aliens admitted as nonimmigrant workers anywhere under the U.S. flag are eligible for these benefits; but this being the U.S. immigration system, complexities abound, and some aliens are, in fact eligible for the benefits, including refugees and permanent resident aliens.

Now the rules for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA are the same in CNMI as they are in Guam and on the mainland, but each state and territory runs its own local version of the program — all with federal dollars.   And each designs its own forms. 

In the case of the CNMI its form writers apparently forgot the fundamental rule for designing such documents: don’t assume that everyone filling out the form is eligible for the benefit in question.   Apparently lots of CW-1 workers in the Marianas, slogging through the multi-page form, and faced with the instruction: “Choose One” chose one of the four options without realizing that the options were not the only ones really available.

I suspect that many CW-1 workers, knowing that they are 1) aliens, and 2) are authorized to work (but only in the CNMI) chose the misspelled  “Alien/Refuge Lawfully Authorized to Work in the U.S.” alternative.”

This put them, unwittingly in many cases, in the position of seeking a benefit for which they were ineligible.   Now, according to a press release from the CNMI Labor Department of Aug. 10:

   “CW-1 workers who may have misidentified themselves in order to qualify for the [PUA] programs are now on a fraud list for investigation and will be directed to return any amount they may have received.”

That the CNMI government’s incompetence may have played a key role in those disbursements is not mentioned. 

Given my own background in unemployment insurance (ages ago), my work for the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs, (in the ‘90's) and my current work with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, I decided I would look at the Guam application for the PUA benefits.  It was online and, at the citizenship question, it offers the applicant these choices:

  • Citizen of U.S. or U.S. territory
  • U.S. Permanent Resident
  • Alien/Refugee Lawfully Authorized to Work in the U.S.
  • Citizen of Freely Associated States
  • None of the above

Thus Guam not only spelled the word “refugee” correctly, as CNMI did not, it gave the applicants a full range of possible choices, including “none of the above,” four key little words. If one chooses the “none of the above” category on the Guam form the process stops, and one cannot complete the online application with that recorded.  

Thus the ineligible applicant does not waste time filling out the balance of this long form, and  those without the right kind of citizen or alien qualification are not awarded benefits. 

Go Guam!

The Guam document, however, is not letter perfect, but its flaw is minor.    There is no such thing as a citizen of a U.S. territory. There is, however,  a special arrangement for those living in American Samoa, they are nationals and not citizens of the U.S.   As to citizens of the Freely Associated States (the Republics of Palau and the Marshal Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia), they are eligible for PUA benefits. 

The writer is a resident of Washington, D.C.

 

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