‘CNMI can convince DC to reconsider touchback’

Villagomez agrees with need to amend NMI US Workforce Act, applauds Kilili’s bill for ‘touchback’ delay

Senate President Edith E. DeLeon Guerrero (D-Saipan) believes that the CNMI can convince Washington, D.C. to reconsider the “touchback provision” of the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act, Public Law 115-218, provided that the Commonwealth also show that it is sincere in increasing the rate of qualified workforce participation through workforce training, labor enforcement and placements.

House of Representatives Speaker Edmund S. Villagomez (Ind-Saipan) agrees with Gov. Arnold I. Palacios’ position that the U.S. Workforce Act of 2018, which governs the administration of CW program, needs to be amended. He also applauds the efforts of Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (D-MP) in filing a bill that delays the “touchback provision” by three years.

In his testimony before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the “State of the U.S. Territories” last month, Palacios noted that processing times for CW-1 permits are so delayed that employers wait months after the petition start date to receive the necessary approvals to secure entry of the CW-1 permit holders to the CNMI.

As a result, Palacios said, because of the “touchback rule,” a large population of workers will be required to depart all at the same time without a clear timeline for their return, and at a time when businesses are attempting to regain normalcy in operations.

Sablan said the “touchback provision” was problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic, when air flights were interrupted and costly, and home country ingress (entry) requirements made it difficult for workers to return.

DeLeon Guerrero said it is quite obvious that there are millions of dollars of federal funds for CNMI construction projects to break ground. Yet, she said, the CNMI is lacking in sufficient skilled workers to work these projects, while also at the same time there are citizens who need jobs.

The Senate president said it is good that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reconsidered its initial policy on Commonwealth-Only Transitional Workers (CW-1) issued prior to June 18, 2020 as now only CW-1s issued on or after June 18, 2020, are the ones applicable to with this new policy.

“We must strike a balance by providing employment opportunities to local qualified residents in industry/sectors of the economy where jobs creation is most notable, example the construction industry where the touchback provision will not be in the interest of the CNMI because projects must continue,” DeLeon Guerrero said.

At the end of the day, Villagomez said, it’s the CNMI’s federal partners that control immigration here and the process in which to carry out that immigration policy.

Villagomez said even if the “touchback provision” is delayed just for three years, it’s almost like an impediment to the CNMI’s economy and in providing the goods and services to customers, whether they are local customers or visitors.

The speaker also noted that there are a lot of ongoing construction projects happening now in the CNMI.

Villagomez said the CNMI is trying to bring back the tourism industry on its feet and the services that the hotels provide might be compromised. Even if the delay is temporary, what if the CNMI sees a surge of visitors coming around that time when a good number of key staff at hotels or service industries have to go through this “touchback” requirement?

Villagomez said even if the “touchback” requirement is delayed temporarily as Sablan sought in his legislation, the CNMI could see a difference in the effect it might have on the economy.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com
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