CNMI faces new challenge


Vicky Benavente

Although the CNMI workforce has only started to get back on its feet following multiple typhoons and an ongoing pandemic, it now faces a new challenge in the form of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ recently implemented “touchback” policy.

In an interview with CNMI Department of Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente, she said it will be another great challenge for the CNMI’s labor workforce to overcome the inevitable exodus of hundreds of CNMI-Only Transitional workers due to the “touchback” policy which will take effect starting Sept. 30, 2022.

“We are so dependent on our CW workers, so this is going to be a challenge as the CNMI as a whole and our economy is just beginning to recover from the pandemic and its economic effects. We’re really feeling the pinch more and more as we already had a shortage of workers [to begin with],” she said.

“[This] particular exodus is really going to affect us because this means less hands to work in our economy, less working, able bodied hands, qualified, experienced skilled hands, that we all need to run our economy,” she added.

However, Benavente said she is confident the CNMI is up for the challenge.

“It’s a tough time, but I believe we’re up to the challenge. We have some students who are graduating from high school and we have some returning residents who want to come back home and help with the challenges that we are facing in the CNMI. So it’s a good time for recovery,” she said.

The DOL secretary said she is also confident in the efforts CNMI DOL has made in the past three years in preparation for this inevitable loss of CW-1 workers.

“We’ve had three years to prepare. The CNMI Department of Labor has been helping our business entities with preparing for the expected exodus of contract workers. What we’ve been doing is posting as many job vacancy announcements as we can for local businesses to try and attract local, qualified, U.S. resident workers. Although we’ve been preparing, you can never be prepared for a pandemic. So that kind of threw us off track. But we have prepared as much as we can with skills development training, educating our workforce, and sharing all our local businesses’ concerns with our federal partners. So we have been preparing especially these past three years,” the secretary said.

In addition to providing training and educating the local population, Benavente said DOL is also in the process of submitting a letter to USCIS to relay the many concerns raised by local business as a result of the new touchback policy.

“I am actually drafting a letter to USCIS, voicing concerns that we’ve received from the public sector and private sector companies. We are drafting concerns that have been brought to us so that we can continue to communicate with our federal partners because they can’t do this just from watching what’s going on. They need to hear from the CNMI’s key stakeholders like the government and private sectors,” she said.

Ultimately, Benavente said DOL is doing all it can to but while communication remains ongoing, she also encourages businesses to comply with the new policy even though it may be hard.

“We recognize the concerns and implications that this has on a business because it also has an implication and impact on the economy. But I would also like to encourage all businesses to follow the intent of the law. The labor laws, the U.S. labor laws as we continue to communicate with our federal partners,” she said.

Kimberly Bautista Esmores | Reporter
Kimberly Bautista Esmores has covered a wide range of news beats, including the community, housing, crime, and more. She now covers sports for the Saipan Tribune. Contact her at

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