SUBCOMMITTEE CHAIR DON YOUNG SAYS:
WASHINGTON, DC—Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Strategic Economic Development Council CW and labor task force chair Alex Sablan drummed up support in Washington, D.C. Tuesday (Wednesday morning CNMI time) for Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan’s (Ind-MP) legislation, calling for an extension and cap increase for the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program.
Alaska Congressman and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Don Young (R-Alaska) called the CNMI leaders’ request a “simple solution.”
“We don’t have the workers in the Marianas to do the job. They’re trying to recover from that downturn in the economy. I believe it’s a reasonable request. I mean, if they take the workers that are needed, they know it better than we do and timeframe to make sure they can continue the bill. I believe it’s the right thing to do and ask and I’m going to support it. I think it’s the way to go,” Young told Saipan Tribune after the hearing.
Young called the current economic state of the Commonwealth a success story as the CNMI was able to bounce back after the demise of the garment industry.
Torres and Alex Sablan addressed the subcommittee members in an oversight hearing on Tuesday at 11am (Wednesday, 1am in the CNMI) at the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill. The hearing focused on the economic impacts of the Commonwealth-only worker program. Both CNMI leaders asked for the two main tenets of Delegate Sablan’s legislation—more time and an increase in the CW cap to ease the transition.
“I am not here to request a bailout or drastic Congressional action,” Torres told the lawmakers.
H.R. 5888 includes a request to extend the federally mandated immigration phase out deadline from 2019 to 2029. The legislation does increase the cap to 18,000 contract workers from the current numerical limit.
During his testimony, Torres demonstrated the negative impact following the announcement in May by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services regarding the agency reaching the CW-1 cap for fiscal year 2016. The CNMI lost an estimated $192 million in business revenue in the two months after the notice, Torres told the room of subcommittee members, additional CNMI leaders and members of the federal government in the hearing.
The governor said during his testimony, with the fragile state of the economy, the CNMI is not capable of operating without a large workforce, “which at this time and in the foreseeable future must be fueled with foreign-based sources of labor.”
“At the end of the day, because where we are geographically located at, in order for us to accommodate the new investment, we need the workforce,” the governor told American Samoa Delegate to U.S. Congress Amata Radewagen (R-AS).
Sablan elaborated further to the subcommittee, saying the relationship with USCIS has been positive and productive. But he emphasized the possibility of a loss of operational positions estimated at 3,670 by the end of this year.
Alex Sablan’s written testimony submitted to the subcommittee also mentioned the catastrophic events following the realization of the CW cap crisis, as parents have been separated from their U.S. citizen children over the last few months. He made clear to the congressmen a 2019 deadline to transition contract workers out of the labor force is not feasible.
A question-and-answer period followed the oral testimony by the CNMI leaders. Amid questions about the role of USCIS, the role of the CNMI Department of Labor, and requested data about longterm labor needs, Torres and Alex Sablan applauded the work of programs to increase the local labor contingent through institutions including the Public School System, Northern Marianas College, Northern Marianas Trade Institute, Latte Training Academy, and G4s.
“The idea, as the governor has alluded to, is to grow the economy through the degree that we can encourage the vast majority of our citizens to return back home that have left in outmigration because we did not have an economy for over a dozen years,” Alex Sablan said during the oversight hearing. Leaders did tell the lawmakers the legislation is necessary to achieve the desired economic development and the needed workforce, but also to entice the CNMI residents living off-island to return to “a new and improved economy in the CNMI.”
“Wage levels are hyper inflating as we speak and we believe we’ll be at a level where we can be competitive with respect to wages down the road,” Sablan said.
Toward the end of the hearing, Young mentioned there are some who are opposed to the idea of such a piece of legislation, but he did tell the governor and leaders he thinks H.R. 5888 should pass. Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU) vocally expressed her support for H.R. 5888 at the oversight hearing. But as subcommitee members recognized the need for more lawmakers to back the legislation, Bordallo said it’s a “pretty big community to get on board, but we’ll work it. I hope we can work together,” she told Saipan Tribune.
Young disclosed to Saipan Tribune he would be willing to see the situation on the ground in the Commonwealth first hand with a possible trip in February, depending on the outcome of the November elections.