Guam needs more temporary workers than the federal government is allowing for the military buildup, said the governor's office.
"We have been cut off at the feet," Calvo said earlier this week in his address to the island. “Not only are we not seeing increased temporary foreign laborers, but we have gone from more than 1,300 foreign laborers to 178 foreign laborers in about a year.”
The U.S. military plans to relocate about 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to a new base on Guam as part of a larger realignment of forces in the Asia-Pacific region. About $8.6 billion is projected to be spent on the new base and other buildup projects.
A dozen businesses that depend on temporary foreign workers under the H-2B program last year sued the federal government after it started to reject nearly all requests. Guam's population is too small to support a large full-time force of construction workers, so foreign laborers are brought in to fill the gap when large projects begin. Guam businesses unrelated to construction also rely on the use of foreign labor under the visa program.
Federal immigration officials have argued they are simply applying existing policies, and that visa requests are being rejected because Guam has not been using the program as intended, for temporary labor.
The federal government, beginning in 2008, agreed to temporarily lift the national cap on H-2B visas for Guam and the CNMI in anticipation of the increased labor demands of the buildup. But the change is now meaningless because immigration officials are rejecting most requests for new visas and for visa renewals.
The U.S. and Japan governments years ago wanted to ensure the buildup had the support of the people of Guam, according to the governor's office, but the foreign worker issue threatens the island and, now the governor's support.
"For the last year, we've asked the Obama Administration to work with us to ensure the H-2B Visa rejection rates don't rise to the point where our economy is endangered," Gov. Eddie Calvo said Tuesday in a written statement. " Their lack of a response has brought us to this situation where I have been left with no choice but to withdraw support of the military buildup on Guam. If they do move forward now, they know they do so at the cost of Guam's economy."
Contractors already have reported a ripple effect in the local economy, saying the smaller labor pool has affected their ability to build single family homes, and even to bid on military projects. They simply don't have the manpower to meet project deadlines, they said.
Calvo’s withdrawal of support, according to Adelup Communications Director Oyaol Ngirairikl, means the adminisrtation believes the U.S. Department of Defense should halt its progress on the military realignment and buildup until Guam’s H-2B visa dilemma is resolved.
“The withdrawal of his support is contingent on the federal government … on this federally induced labor shortage,” Ngirairikl said.
“The DoD said that they wanted to hear from the people of Guam and they wanted to make sure that they had the full support of the island because it’s going to have such an impact on the island,” she also said. “But they’re not living up to the promise of the One Guam, which was one of the four pillars.”
The pillars represent the Defense Department’s promise to work with the government of Guam so the buildup would be mutually beneficial for both the island and the military.
“I want the buildup to happen, but I also want to ensure that Guam isn’t left behind,” Calvo said in his weekly address. “That’s why, in 2011, I worked with the Department of Defense to come up with the four pillars, which included the One Guam approach: What’s good for inside the fence is good outside the fence as well.”
At the same meeting Calvo withdrew his support for the building, he also called on Attorney General Elizabeth Barrett-Anderson to join the lawsuit businesses filed last October.
Barrett-Anderson, during a radio interview Wednesday morning on K-57 radio, said she is considering joining the case, not as a party, but as an amicus – a friend of the court expressing support for the businesses.
Since late 2015, the number of H-2B visa applications denials have rocketed, creating what Calvo and other officials are calling an economic crisis. The companies allege that the high rejection rate is an unlawful change in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services policy.
Ngirairikl said that Calvo had sent letters to former President Barack Obama and continues to reach out to federal officials, asking them to keep up their end of the bargain.
Despite those attempts to reach resolution, the local government’s concerns have fallen on deaf ears, Calvo noted.
“The economic crisis that I’ve been warning about is coming to a head,” he said. “Unless the federal government can truly support us and address the high rejection rates of H-2B visas that allows the provisions to augment our local work force – at the levels required to support our growing economy and the military projects, we have no choice but to withdraw support for this military buildup.”
Calvo also said he’s creating a task force charged with focusing on the H-2B visa problem and looking at “possible short-, mid- and long-term solutions.”
“I cannot just sit back and do nothing. I see the train coming and our people are tied to the tracks,” Calvo said.