Gov. Ralph DLG Torres said policies and other regulations that the U.S. federal government adopted have had an adverse effect to its territories, making it as an additional challenge to communities like the CNMI. He testified on Tuesday in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
Murkowski, who introduced S. 2325 or the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act last year, called for the hearing to examine the situation of the five territories—especially with the CNMI, Guam, and Puerto Rico recovering after being hit by destructive typhoons in the last 18 months.
Governors Lou Leon Guerrero (Guam), Ricardo Roselló (Puerto Rico), and Albert Bryan (U.S. Virgin Islands) joined Torres in testifying in the committee hearing. American Samoa Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga failed to attend and just submitted a written testimony.
Torres thanked Murkowski and the other members of the Senate committee, like ranking Joe Manchin (D-WV), in calling for the meeting as it recognizes the important conversation on the priorities of U.S. territories. “Many of the issues facing the territories today are unique to us. We all fight against issues of geography. Limited land mass, natural resource scarcity, distance from the U.S., and important reliance are key among these issues.”
“We face labor challenges, where our locations, economies, outward migration and population sizes are not suitable to build resiliency or strength in a globally competitive market. But I believe most important among these issues is our continual struggle to gain the federal government’s understanding of the complexity of achieving substantial progress for the people living in the territories.”
He added that the CNMI was grateful for the efforts made by Murkowski in organizing and encouraging Congressional Delegation visits to the CNMI, which gives the chance for members of U.S. Congress to see and hear firsthand the issues that affect the territories like the Commonwealth.
“Many of the challenges we face are difficult to comprehend if one does not travel the 8,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to experience it for themselves. Efforts such as these are critical when federal laws have such over-sized effects on the fragile state of the U.S. territories,” said Torres.
He added that territories, unlike the 50 states, have limited powers in U.S. Congress and have no voice in choosing the next leader of the country but suffer from policies and other regulations implemented by the federal government.
“Territories, while not having full representation in our House of Representatives, no direct representation in the U.S. Senate, and are unable to cast a vote for president, suffer the harshest side effects of the unintended consequences of federal actions that do not account for the vulnerability our communities,” said Torres.
Recovering from Yutu
Torres, who won a fresh four-year mandate, also informed the committee that one of his administration’s priority right now is to help the community recover from the devastation brought by Super Typhoon Yutu, which hit the islands of Saipan and Tinian in October last year.
“While I have many goals for the next four years in office, I must be honest in recognizing the greatest obstacles toward improving the lives of the people of the CNMI are the actions of the federal government. One of my most urgent priorities is the rebuilding of safe and resilient homes that were destroyed by Super Typhoon Yutu last October,” he said.
“Super Typhoon Yutu was the worst typhoon to hit U.S. soil since 1935. According to damage assessments performed by the American Red Cross 5,910 homes were destroyed or suffered major damage after the disaster last year. Nearly four out of every 10 homes on island were impacted by this disaster at a time where available housing 2 stocks were already at capacity.”
Torres then discussed the H-2B issue involving the CNMI and Guam, and the challenges they face after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security removed the Philippines from the list of countries that are eligible to avail of the said visa program last month. CNMI and Guam employers use the H-2B visa to hire skilled, especially from the Philippines.
He said the H-2B is critical for the CNMI right now, as homes and other infrastructure need repairs and rebuilding, since the current CW-1 [CNMI-Only Transitional Worker] program prevents workers in the construction trades to avail the said visa category.
“These homes will require rebuilding and new construction to maintain the safety and security of their families, yet the availability of construction labor to do this necessary and critical work has been limited by federal actions preventing construction companies’ access to the necessary foreign labor through the H-2B program,” said Torres.
“In this situation, the prohibition of CW-1 positions for new construction workers combined with the federal government’s position that the majority of construction contractors are ineligible to source their labor through the H-2B process, will result in fewer safe and sanitary homes in the CNMI.”
He said the wide-ranging implications on issues such as socioeconomic mobility, education, and health in the CNMI is a great concern. “Down the road this will require even greater federal resources to support these families. In my time, I had to lead my islands through two once-in-a-generation natural disasters.”
“It is not a question of if another disaster devastates our islands, but when. This will happen again, and without the presence of construction labor to rebuild resilient homes, the cost to the federal government will be greater and greater in the years to come.”
He added the CNMI’s limited access to labor has caused the federal government more. “Already the cost of policies limiting access to construction labor has increased the cost to the federal government for disaster recovery.”
Torres then thanked all federal agencies that helped them after the disaster. “After Typhoon Yutu, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense recognized the challenges of performing their work for the [U.S.] citizens living in the CNMI by seeking out new and innovative solutions that conformed to our unique circumstances.”
He added that DoD and FEMA, a week after the disaster, introduced TETRIS, or the Temporary Emergency Tent and Roofing Installation Support program, to help individuals that lost their homes from the tornado-like winds of Yutu.
“Under TETRIS, the Joint Task Force West, saw more than 1,000 uniformed service members mobilized in support of the relief efforts. Seabees from the 30th Naval Construction Regiment and the 254th Red Horse Squadron were activated in the hundreds to support the installation of tents and emergency roof repairs for the thousands of affected homes because local manpower and resources could not scale in the capacity necessary to prevent further loss of life, mitigate suffering and reduce the impact of the disaster,” said Torres.
“If it were not for the 200 men and women of the Seabees and the Red Horses, 184 homes on Tinian would be without roofs over their heads because there are no available construction workers there.”
Torres said FEMA has also approved a Permanent Housing Construction Program, where they would construct new typhoon-resilient homes to eligible individuals. “Currently there are 9,400 applicants for this program and FEMA is in the process of looking toward bringing in labor from outside the CNMI because of the lack of local manpower. The homes that are selected will be fortunate.”
“Now, as FEMA and SBA resources have been released to the residents of the CNMI, the thousands of homes remaining will not be able to afford the cost of transporting labor nor will there be available contractors to help rebuild their lives. The DoD and FEMA have experienced the challenges we live with daily when it comes to labor and have created new pathways to work around them.”