Editorial: Visitors from Washington must take Guam's issue with them
When it’s cold in Washington, D.C., our tropical island gets its occasional share of visits by a “codel,” which is Washington-speak for a congressional delegation.
A few days ago, members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee visited Guam and did the usual stops that such delegations usually make while on Guam.
They placed wreaths at World War II-era memorial sites, visited the military bases and met with local elected officials in closed-door discussions in which local media wasn’t allowed.
For some of the Guam officials who had the chance to talk to the delegation, there was one issue that stood out as pressing and key to the economic future of the entire island.
The shortage of skilled workers in the construction and health care industries has slowed projects, particularly for the much-touted military expansions on the island. Guam Sen. Regine Biscoe Lee brought up the issue with the delegation, led by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop. The delegation visited the Guam Legislature Friday morning.
The granting of H-2B visas for skilled foreign labor “has declined precipitously in the past year, and the lack of skilled workers has led to a significant strain on Guam’s economy as contractors struggle to complete projects and Guam’s only private hospital struggles to keep floors staffed,” according to Lee.
“As legislative oversight for Guam's labor and workforce development, I must ask for your assistance in supporting (Delegate Madeleine Bordallo’s) and our governor's efforts to find a legislative solution to the H-2B worker visa denials that we're facing,” Lee said.
It looks like at the end of the meeting with local lawmakers, the delegation committed to help Guam.
However, it’s still unclear if the committee has enough pull to carry Guam’s issue through to successful resolution, in light of President Trump’s tightened policy on hiring foreign labor.
Last year, Guam was close to getting an exemption from tightened foreign labor importation actions by federal immigration authorities.
A rider on the defense spending law would have given Guam’s construction and health care sectors the exemption from high H-2B visa rejection rates. That provision looked like it was going to pass, as part of the defense spending bill.
But by the time the legislation’s revised version came out of a conference committee that ironed out differences between the House and Senate versions, Guam didn’t get the labor shortage relief it hoped to get.
So the question now is if the labor shortage relief didn’t pass as part of the defense spending measure, how likely is it for the Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight over the Department of the Interior, to succeed in helping Guam?
Bordallo has tried various ways to help the local construction and health care sectors. She has said she’s trying some more, but she and the governor may need to step up their efforts and try different ways.
Writing letters to legislative officials and the Trump administration will not be enough. And anything they do beyond letter-writing should be shared with the public.
“In the last (National Defense Authorizaton Act), Congress was so close to passing a legislative remedy to address Guam's unique labor challenges for the military realignment and health care services on Guam. I ask that you support the congresswoman and U.S. military leaders who are pushing for a legislative solution to the H-2B worker need on Guam,” Lee said to the delegation.
The delegation now knows what one of the most pressing issues Guam faces is.
It’s now up to the delegation to take that information back to Washington, along with some memories of sunny, beachy Guam.