Trump's Migrant Curbs Slow Storm Recovery on Remote U.S. Islands

(Bloomberg) -- Limits imposed on foreign workers by the Trump administration are preventing the U.S. Western Pacific territories of Saipan and Tinian from rebuilding after a devastating typhoon in 2018, said Governor Ralph Torres.

Super Typhoon Yutu struck the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in October as a Category 5 storm with winds as high as 180 miles (290 kilometers) per hour, making it the strongest to hit anywhere in the U.S. since 1935. The storm destroyed or caused major damage to 4 in 10 houses on the islands, Torres said in an interview on Wednesday; of those, 90 percent have yet to be repaired, and thousands of people are still living in tents.

Torres, who’s testifying at congressional hearings and meeting with federal officials in Washington this week, praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense for their assistance, including putting temporary roofs on 546 homes. But he said that unless the federal government makes it easier for foreign workers to come to the islands, which are home to about 55,000 people, there will be too few laborers to rebuild.

“We probably won’t be able to recover,” Torres said, when asked how long the recovery would take without reversing new policies that have curbed the use of foreign workers allowed in the commonwealth. “Maybe 10 years? Fifteen years?”

Saipan and Tinian, which the U.S. seized from Japan near the end of World War II, are almost 6,000 miles west of California and an eight-hour flight from Hawaii. That distance has made it difficult for the islands, whose residents are U.S. citizens, to attract workers from the mainland U.S. Instead, the commonwealth has traditionally relied on foreigners from nearby countries, especially the Philippines.

In 2017, Congress passed a law that excluded construction workers from a special visa category created specifically for the commonwealth. Backers of the measure assured the commonwealth that it could procure workers through another visa program, the H-2B.

Then, in January, the administration of President Donald Trump announced that workers from the Philippines would no longer be eligible for the program because of prior instances of abuse.

The Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t say whether it was considering revising the decision in light of the commonwealth’s concerns about having insufficient workers.

“The Department of Homeland Security takes concerns involving fraud, abuse, denial rates, overstay rates, human trafficking, and other forms of non-compliance very seriously,” Jessica Collins, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, which is part of the department, said in a statement on Thursday. “DHS maintains its authority to add or remove any country at any time.”

Worker Shortage

“FEMA is giving us so much assistance, but we’re not able to utilize those funds because of our lack of a workforce,” Torres said. “And the next typhoon is coming. It’s just a matter of when.”

In addition to the 90 percent of damaged or destroyed homes that still needing to be repaired, many of the commonwealth’s schools were destroyed, leaving students in temporary classrooms, Torres said. And the power grid will take years to repair.

“Eighty percent of the homes that are able to get power, have power,” Torres said. “The others -- that’s going to be a long process. Probably two years, three years from now.”

Abigail Dennis, a FEMA spokeswoman, said that the agency, along with the U.S. Small Business Administration, have so far provided $119.2 million in aid to the commonwealth following Yutu.

“Recovery from a storm of this magnitude takes time, but recovery is well under way,” Dennis said in an email. “We continue to work closely with the power utility and believe the restoration to properties that can safely receive it is nearly 100 percent now.”

Asked to comment on Torres’ concerns about restrictions on immigrant labor slowing the recovery, Dennis responded: “Our focus is to continue to help with the hardening of infrastructure and refining our plans to build more resilient homes.”

The large number of foreign workers living in Saipan and Tinian has created its own challenges for the recovery. Many of the homes damaged or destroyed were owned by non-citizens, who aren’t eligible for federal disaster assistance, Torres said.

So even if there were enough construction workers, aid from FEMA and other agencies couldn’t be used to repair those homes. Torres said his government is relying on nonprofits for that work.

Juanita Mendiola, president of the Tinian Women’s Association, said the situation on Tinian is even worse than the official numbers suggest. She said putting people in tents for this long is not an adequate solution.

Hot Tin Roofs

“The tents are so hot, it’s ridiculous,” Mendiola said in a phone interview this month. “But they have to live in it, because there’s no place else from them to stay.”

Meanwhile, she said, the few people who have received temporary tin roofs still have to deal with water getting into their homes. “The roofs that they gave these people are leaking.”

Mendiola said what’s worse has been the apparent lack of interest from the rest of the U.S. in the commonwealth’s plight.

“The biggest disappointment is, we’ve tried to reach out to people in the U.S.,” she said. I feel like there was little or no response.”

“And then the response from the federal government is, be grateful,” Mendiola added. “Be grateful for whatever it is that you receive.”

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