The U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources cleared on Thursday (Friday, CNMI time) an omnibus territories bill that would extend up to 2019 the current CNMI-only worker and E2C investor programs that are supposed to end after Dec. 31, 2014.
The bill, S. 1237, however, still has to go through full U.S. Senate and House of Representatives for a vote before heading to President Barack Obama.
This comes as the CNMI awaits U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez’s decision to extend the transition period. That decision is expected to come out in January. The omnibus territories bill will extend that transition period only until 2019.
“It would be good if the CW program is extended or the CNMI will have a big problem if all CW workers are forced to go home,” Cezar Zaraspe told Saipan Tribune on Saturday.
Zaraspe has been a construction worker in the CNMI since 1989. If the CW program is not extended, he—like other foreign workers—won’t have a choice but to go back to the Philippines where he hails from.
Zhang Jun, a Chinese mother of two U.S. citizen children, said she’s been working in the CNMI for nine years and she won’t want to leave the CNMI after 2014.
“I want to stay on Saipan and work,” the worker from Chongqing said Saturday.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), in a statement on Friday, said the number of foreign workers in the CNMI would still have to be reduced every year, however, and zeroed out by Dec. 31, 2019.
He said the 184 foreign investors, who had established businesses in the CNMI prior to 2009 and who now hold Commonwealth-only visas, would be allowed to stay in business, “also until the end of 2019.”
Press secretary Angel Demapan said yesterday the Inos administration supports a CW and E2C program extension until 2019.
Sablan thanked Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and his Republican counterpart, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), for Thursday’s action in Washington, D.C.
Wyden and Murkowski introduced S. 1237 at Sablan’s request on June 27.
Sablan authored and introduced a companion bill in the House, H.R. 2200, a month earlier. Delegates Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam), Donna M. Christensen (D-Virgin Islands), and Eni F.V. Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) are co-sponsors.
“I very much appreciate this bipartisan recognition that it is impossible to fill the 10,000 jobs now held by foreign workers with U.S. workers by the end of next year,” Sablan said.
He said he understands there are only 1,742 U.S. workers now registered with the local employment services office.
“Even if every one of them took a job, we would still be 8,000 short. Businesses would close. Investors would take their money elsewhere. Tax revenues would drop. And the cost of electricity and other basic necessities would rise, because we would have fewer consumers in our economy,” he said.
Besides adding five years to the ongoing period of transition from local to federal management of immigration in the CNMI, the omnibus territories bill contains 11 other sections.
They aim to cut electricity rates in the U.S. insular areas, reduce the local match island governments pay for some federal grants, and help island finance departments improve annual revenue estimates.
The omnibus bill is an effort to get territorial issues considered outside of partisan political concerns and enacted without being dependent on larger legislation.
“Having a bill dealing solely and specifically with insular area issues is a pattern I want to establish and maintain in every Congress. Of course, I will keep working on Northern Marianas issues with standalone legislation and by inserting language that benefits us in the big policy bills, too. You have to create multiple opportunities, if you want to get things done here,” Sablan said.
A CNMI territorial sea or submerged lands provision was originally part of S.1237, but Sablan was able to have it enacted as a separate, standalone measure in September, one of only 57 bills that have become law in all of 2013.
Sablan said four Republican senators—Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), John Barossa (Wyoming), Mike Lee (Utah), and Tim Scott (South Carolina)—voted Thursday against sending S.1237 to the Senate floor for final approval.
None of them stated the nature of their objection to the bill, he said.
“We will be working over the holiday break to address whatever concerns remain. I would certainly like to see the Senate pass S.1237 early in the new year and send it over to the House, so we can start moving the bill through our committee process,” he said.
Without an extension of the CW program, the CNMI loses immediate access to some 10,000 foreign skilled and professional workers, mostly from the Philippines, that the CNMI economy has relied upon for years and decades—from nurses to engineers, architects, accountants, carpenters, hotel employees, farmers and house workers, among others.