Contradictory overstay policies belie Filipino visa crackdown

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Guam – Citing rampant overstays and “high volume human trafficking,” the U.S. government has essentially just halted Filipino work visa applications, making it even more difficult for Guam to hire contract workers from  traditional labor sources in the Philippines.

The sweeping announcement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security means the consequences and contradictions of American immigration policy are sharply felt in small but strategically critical places like the unincorporated U.S. Territory of Guam. Owing to its unique geographical location and a combination of natural resources that make it fit for outposting, for centuries the island has served the geopolitical, trade, and defensive postures of colonizing nations from Spain to Imperial Japan to the United States.

Back in the Beltway…

Meanwhile, it’s more than a month into the partial federal shutdown as Congress and the President remain at loggerheads on border security funding tied to broader federal operations.

And recent bargaining chips proffered by President Trump have left Congress unimpressed and U.S. migration prerogatives subject to politics that appear to contradict border security and defense priorities.

The removal of the Philippines, Dominican Republic, and Ethiopia from H-2A and H2-B Nonimmigrant Worker Programs on January 18 comes at a time when federal employees throughout the nation have worked without pay or fear of job loss—when federal contractors and subcontractors are forced to stay home and seek temporary employment till the U.S. government shutdown finally ends.

And every passing day brings into deeper doubt how reliable paychecks for foreign contract workers could possibly be anyway, when so many citizen-employees are struggling to make ends meet without reliance on their regular federal compensation.

For Guam, the removal of Filipino workers from the list of labor options further complicates an already difficult situation in which approvals for H-2B Filipino labor had already slowed to a drip since the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began rejecting nearly 100 percent of H-2B visas about three years ago.

The mass disapproval of H-2B visas for civilian construction projects outside military controlled lands on Guam has rarefied the labor pool and sent construction costs through the roof—limiting the supply of affordable homes and pricing countless families out of the new homes market.

But keeping her chin up, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero is looking for bright spots to turn things around.

“But there is also the 1045 section of the National Defense Authorization Act that still stands [and] allows the military buildup projects,” Leon Guerrero told Newstalk K57 morning host Patti Arroyo during a live telephone interview on Tuesday.

As a news release from the Office of the Governor pointed out on Monday, “While the new policy in the Federal Register removes the Philippines from H-2B eligibility, it also contains language which allows for certain exemptions. The Federal Register cites petitions that ‘qualifies under section 1045 of the National Defense Authorization act (NDAA) for FY
2019,’ as potential exemptions. Section 1045 of the NDAA is a provision that allows for H-2B visa approvals for military-related projects on Guam.”

And while the FY19 NDAA also lifts the 4,000 headcount cap on H-2B foreign workers for the buildup (but not for projects outside the fence), DHS has now removed Guam’s traditional primary labor pool from the list of labor options.

Even so, the governor also sees wiggle room in the Dept. of Homeland Security’s decision, which says in part, that USCIS may allow a national from a country that is not on the Federal Register’s list of acceptable foreign-labor countries “to be named as a beneficiary of an H-2A or H-2B petition based on a determination that such participation is in the U.S. interest.”

“And I think we can show them that we’re going to follow and comply to the regulations and make sure that there’s no overstay; then I’m hoping that they could be more lenient towards Guam,” the governor told K57.

Convincing USCIS of the need for workers from the Philippines exclusively may or may not be a challenge, considering the significant labor pools of the 80-odd other countries that made the list of acceptable work visa-application nations in DHS’s January 18 Federal Register announcement.

But few can argue that foreign labor from any other country would fit in as well as Filipino labor has fit into Guam ever since it rebuilt this island after WWII–especially given the Philippines’ deep and abiding cultural similarities and shared history with Guam.

“Governor Leon Guerrero and I recognize the contributions thousands of Filipinos made in order to rebuild our island and reignite our economy in the aftermath of World War II. Decades later their talents and contributions remain vital to filling our skilled labor shortage as we move forward with the build-up and further strengthening our island’s economy,” Lt. Gov.  Joshua  Tenorio announced in Monday’s Adelup press release.

Meanwhile, adding a twist of irony and pragmatism to the acid sting of unfairness, President Trump has offered to allow another group of folks deemed over-stayers to stick around in the U.S. if Congress will just give him the $5.7 billion to build a migration-control wall on the Mexican border. And it’s not entirely unlikely that an approved over-stayer could wind up helping build that wall.

Trump said Saturday that if Congress forked over the cash for the border wall, he’d reopen the government and extend temporary protections for so-called “Dreamers” and those with Temporary Protected Status. But Congressional House Democrats turned him down.

The president was thus willing to extend the stays of those the administration once deemed illegal, deportable–even dangerous–in exchange for Congressional funding for a protective wall that deportables themselves might then be qualified to help build.

The administration’s willingness to give and take on immigration and migration enforcement policy arrives at a juncture when a much-needed Filipino worker pool and their employment agencies face a contortion of barriers that could make Guam a less attractive place to hedge long-shot bets on construction labor contracts that would also ostensibly make the United States, its far-flung territories, and land assets safer places to live, work, and raise a family.

So the costly shutdown grinds on and is now reportedly on the verge of exceeding the estimated $5.7 billion development cost of the controversial Trump Wall.

And no contractor, foreign or domestic, has any guaranty of being paid as long as the shutdown ensues.