U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has for the last five years maintained a guest worker program of employment for foreign workers to work in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. One of five island territories of the United States, the North Mariana Islands was exempt from American immigration laws until November 28, 2009. The USCIS implemented the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI)-Only Transitional Worker (CW-1) program. Until earlier this month, that program had a lapse date of December 31, 2014. Now the Department of Labor has announced the five-year extension of the program through December 31, 2019.
Those applicants who have pending petitions for enrollment in the program will now be able to qualify for one-year CW-1 status even if the petition has not been adjudicated by the end of this year. Otherwise, the process for approval is unchanged. Employers still must file Form I-129CW up to six months in advance of the employee’s potential start date. Spouses and minor children can accompany CW-1 workers provided they obtain CW-2 status.
What truly distinguishes the CW-1 program is that it gives employers in the CNMI the ability to apply for temporary permission to employ foreign nationals who are ineligible for any existing employment-based nonimmigrant category under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Prior to its inception, the territory had developed a reputation as a place in which employers could exploit cheap labor. As a special free trade zone, it maintained a low minimum wage of $3.05 per hour. Critics claimed that this caused companies to establish factories there to take advantage of this situation. In response, President Bush signed a bill which raises the minimum wage level annually in fifty cent increments until it reaches the federal minimum wage mark.
Further Congress enacted the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 (CNRA) which sets a limit on the number of CW-1 workers permitted to work there every year. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has set that limit at 14,000 for the year 2014. Every year the DHS must assess the CNMI’s labor market needs and opportunity for growth in order to determine at what level the annual limit should be placed.