CNMI grapples with federalization
By Amritha Alladi • Pacific Daily News • December 5, 2009
Saipan's business leaders are still trying to make sense of the federalization that went into effect Saturday.
It's not that the new federal presence has caught anyone off-guard; it's that residents still are waiting to find out what the new policies are.
David Sablan, president of Century Insurance on Saipan, said the federalization was agreed upon in 1976, when the islands signed the covenant that established political ties between the CNMI and the United States. The minimum wage and right to implement U.S. immigration laws were agreed upon at that time, he said.
"It would seem logical that all the gateways of the United States must be handled by the proper agency of the U.S. government. That's mainly immigration," he said.
However, he said the business community has been operating independently for the last "twenty-something years," and that's left a lot of unknown terrain when it comes to how the business community should handle foreign labor now.
The public law has yet to be implemented as a binding regulation in the CNMI, he said.
"That's basically what we're waiting for, ... to go through legal procedure by which a regulation may become a binding regulation," Sablan said.
Jim Arenovksi, president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce and president of the Delta Management Corp. in Saipan, said even before the shift to U.S. immigration law, economic opportunities on the island dwindled mainly because investors didn't know what to expect of the new rules.
"This has hurt any opportunities for investment in the CNMI, simply because investors have no idea of what the regulations are going to be," he said Monday. "That's what we've been dealing with the last year-and-a-half to two years. No one is coming to the CNMI until this is settled."
The upside to the federal presence on the islands is that it makes services more accessible to CNMI residents.
"Now that (U.S. immigration) is here, it is within walking distance to make an appointment and go to see them (to get an) on-the-spot opinion on any ambiguity that we are facing here today," Sablan said.
Furthermore, businesses won't be able to hire foreign workers under a CW-1 visa after the transitional period, he said. The new classifications for foreign workers won't include a CW category.
"If a person does not fit a certain visa requirement, then they'll have to leave sooner or later," he said. "What immigration is telling us is that they will issue a blanket CW-1 if you're wanted for the next two years, and within that next two-year period, they will try to fit in these various jobs into the established U.S. immigration categories," Sablan said.
But according to Arenovski, a federal judge has put a halt on federal worker regulations so that even CW visas currently don't exist, although they were supposed to as of Nov. 28. Foreign worker regulations are still "up in the air," he said.
"That's going to cause a bit of a concern in the interim period right now. We're not allowed to bring anyone into the NMI from a worker standpoint unless they fit into a federal category," Arenvoski said.
Sablan said the industries that would be most affected are hoteliers and restaurants.
"The benefit to this is that this will enable us to look at the local manpower needs and get those people trained to fit into the various vacuums that will be left by the various alien workers," Sablan added.
Another benefit is the visa waiver program that has been implemented in the CNMI as part of the federalization.
In late October, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano allowed the CNMI, on a parole basis, to waive visa requirements for Russians and Chinese tourists -- two markets that generate about 20 percent of the region's tourist revenue, according to Arenovski.
He said he expects other benefits of the federalization will surface over time.
"We deal with storms and typhoons and earthquakes, we'll be able to deal with this as well," he said.