Judge stops DHS from implementing interim final rule
Friday, November 27, 2009
Agency told to come up with regs for alien workers to travel in, out of NMI
By Ferdie de la Torre
The federal government's interim final rule on the CNMI transitional worker program will not go into effect tomorrow, Saturday, after the judge handling the CNMI government's lawsuit against federalization issued a preliminary injunction yesterday to prevent the rule from going into effect pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Paul L. Friedman agreed with the CNMI government that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had no reasonable basis for publishing the interim rule without giving the CNMI and other stakeholders time to comment, as required under the Administrative Procedures Act.
To help alien workers leave and re-enter the CNMI or for employers to hire needed off-island workers, Friedman suggested that DHS promulgate a narrowly focused and temporary emergency regulation that addresses these issues.
Labor special counsel Deanne Siemer said this is virtually a command for DHS to come up with an emergency regulation that would allow aliens in the CNMI to travel in and out.
Also, since no U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' regulations on CW status or business permits will come into effect tomorrow, the CNMI will continue to operate under its existing labor system except for entry and exit, Siemer said.
The interim rule defines the types of businesses that will be eligible to receive permits for alien workers. It sets a numerical limit on the number of permits that will be granted between Nov. 28, 2009 and Sept. 30, 2010. It also outlines requirements that must be met by employers seeking to obtain a permit.
The CNMI, through the Block and Jenner law firm, asked the court to bar the implementation of the regulations, citing that DHS violated the APA in promulgating them. The CNMI argued that DHS wrongfully dispensed with the notice-and-comment procedures required by the law.
The federal government countered that DHS' action does not violate the APA because it had “good cause” to dispense with the requirement.
In granting the CNMI's motion, Friedman said DHS first provided public notice of the rule when it published the rule in the Federal Register on Oct. 27, 2009.
“Since the interim rule was already in its final form on that date, it is undisputed that DHS failed to provide the notice and opportunity for comment typically required by the APA,” Friedman said.
The judge concluded that upon consideration of the totality of the circumstances surrounding the issue, the CNMI is likely to succeed on its claim that DHS did not have “good cause” to dispense with the notice-and-comment procedures and thus violated the APA.
The federal government suggested that providing notice and an opportunity to comment prior to promulgating the rule was impracticable because Congress, in passing the Consolidated Natural Resources Act (federalization law), imposed several burdensome administrative duties on DHS and only allowed the agency 18 months in which to fulfill them.
Friedman found this argument unpersuasive. He said the interim rule will dramatically alter the CNMI's current system for admitting guest workers, who constitute two-thirds of the CNMI's private workforce.
In short, the judge said, the rule will enact far-reaching changes that likely will have significant effects on the CNMI labor market, and it will do so despite the fact that it has not “been tested via exposure to diverse public comment.”
Friedman found convincing the CNMI's arguments that residents and government have meaningful concerns about the rule.
Friedman cited that the criteria established by the rule for issuance of permits for new guest workers to employers may be inadequate.
As written, the judge pointed out, the rule requires employers seeking permits to “consider all available U.S. workers for the position” that is to be filled by a new guest worker, but does not require those employers to consider guest workers already present in the Commonwealth for the position.
To ensure that employers have “considered available U.S. workers,” the rule only asks that employers attest that they have done so, Friedman said.
“The CNMI posits that such attestations may 'be prone to fraud and leave qualified U.S. citizens unemployed,' a matter it would have raised and documented if it had been given the opportunity to comment,” he said.
The judge added that if he ultimately decides the merits of the CNMI's APA claim in the Commonwealth's favor, the damage done by DHS' violation of the APA cannot be fully cured by later remedial action.
He noted that once the program structured by the rule has begun operation as scheduled on Nov. 28, 2009, DHS is far less likely to be receptive to comments.
“If the interim permit rule is not enjoined prior to its effective date, the CNMI will never have an equivalent opportunity to influence the rule's contents,” Friedman said.
The federal government has provided no evidence to show how many workers and businesses will be affected by a temporary delay in the implementation of the rule, and the court is aware of none.
Friedman said it is unclear that foreign workers otherwise eligible under the Immigration and Nationality Act will be able to leave the CNMI and re-enter it within the first several weeks after Nov. 28, 2009, even if the rule is in place.
“Similarly, while the interim permit rule creates a mechanism whereby a CNMI employer may arrange to hire foreign workers from outside the Commonwealth, it is difficult to know whether employers will have much need for that mechanism in the weeks immediately following Nov. 28, 2009.”
Friedman said the emergency rules to address the problem of foreign workers seeking to leave and return to the CNMI or employers in need of workers from outside the CNMI may be promulgated without notice and comment, since they fall within the APA's “good cause” exception.
“It is unfortunate that DHS may have to issue such ad hoc emergency rules. The court emphasizes, however, that this is a problem of the agency's own making,” he said.
Had DHS released the rule earlier in the year and provided the public with notice and an opportunity for comment, the current problem would never have arisen, he said.
“DHS should not now expect to excuse its violation of the APA by pointing to the problems created by its own delay,” Friedman said.
By failing to meet even the minimum standards set by the APA, DHS has also failed to comply fully with Congress' intent to secure the meaningful involvement of the Commonwealth in the transformation of the CNMI's immigration law, he said.
Friedman said the transitional work permitting program “is of great importance to the CNMI, since it has the potential to transform the nature of the Commonwealth's workforce.”
“That program also involves an area-the regulation of immigration into the CNMI-about which the Commonwealth has significant expertise, having knowledge of the needs of its own economy and having operated its own immigration program for decades,” he said.
The judge said the public interest will be best served if the rule is temporarily stopped so that it may be revised as necessary by DHS upon receipt of comments and advice from the CNMI and other parties.