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String of abuses clouds future of Saipan visa programme

Posted On: Wednesday, 4 April 2018

HONOLULU, 04 APRIL 2018 (AP) --- A push to save and expand a visa programme unique to the Northern Mariana Islands is hitting skids after recent cases of labor abuse and visa fraud, delivering a major blow to the U.S. commonwealth’s economy, which relies heavily on foreign workers. The visa classification, known as CW-1, allows employers to seek permission to hire foreign workers and is aimed at alleviating a labor shortage among the Pacific islands’ population of roughly 52,000. The programme was launched about a decade ago and has brought in nurses, teachers, hotel maids, bakers and more. But a recent spate of visa abuses in the Northern Mariana Islands has cast a shadow over efforts to bolster the programme due to sunset next year. Just this month, labour authorities reached a US$14 million settlement with Chinese companies for exploiting a visa waiver loophole to bring in illegal workers. And a local businessman and two associates were convicted in federal court for their role in a scheme to defraud foreigners by promising them U.S. jobs and green cards in exchange for cash. 

“Seen from the distance of Washington, D.C., this looks like a programme that doesn’t deserve to be continued — it’s not being properly monitored for abuse,” said Bruce Mailman, an attorney at Mailman & Kara in Saipan who has worked with companies employing workers on the CW-1 visa. Still, “it’s a critical programme for this place.” 

Only 4,999 visas have been allotted for 2019, half of what was available the previous year. Cutting the number of visas threatens jobs and hurts the Marianas economy, Rep. Gregorio Sablan, a Democrat representing the islands, said in a March 23 statement. He also has said recent violations of U.S. law give the Marianas a black eye and make it increasingly challenging to maintain a sufficient workforce. A bill introduced in January by Sablan and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who recently visited the islands, seeks to extend the program for another decade. It would increase the number of visas allotted and crack down on oversight.

Provisions to defend against labor abuses include allowing only “legitimate businesses” to be approved for permits — defined as firms that comply with wage laws and safety regulations for at least five years. Companies cannot engage in illegal activities, such as human trafficking, according to a version of the bill from March 20. It also reiterates that construction firms are barred from using the program, a change that passed into law last year in a separate bill.

The U.S. Labor Department has found contractors with the Hong Kong firm Imperial Pacific in violation of most of those requirements. Imperial Pacific is building a casino in Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands. But construction stalled as thousands of illegal workers returned home to China following an FBI raid after a Chinese man died in a construction accident.

The legislation is on hold as Congress is in recess until April 9. By the time lawmakers are back in session, the government will already be accepting applications for 2019?. PACNEWS



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