Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) is pinning his hopes on the results of the investigation being done by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, with the report going to Congress to help them consider changes in immigration and labor issues that would affect the Commonwealth.
GAO representatives, led by assistant director/senior economist Emil Friberg, Ph.D., spent more than a week on Saipan, with Sablan saying that they looked into the economic impact of the staggered minimum wage increases in the last three years.
“The report is mandated by the federal law that established the federal control of minimum wage in the Marianas,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune in an email. He added GAO’s previous reports were useful to him in adjusting the pace of the wage increases in the last eight years.
The report also assured him that wages went up as quickly as possible without reducing employment. “[We] continue to anticipate the federal minimum wage increases, such as the increase to $6.55 per hour [last] September and to $7.05 next year. [It] will be good for workers and the Marianas economy as a whole,” Sablan said
Congress has asked GAO, whose visit to the CNMI was made possible by Sablan being a vice ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, to also review and make a report on the CNMI’s labor situation as stated in a letter to U.S. Comptroller General Eugene Louis Dodaro, CGFM.
Both Senate Energy Committee chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who is also a ranking member of the committee and chair of the Senate Small Business Committee, are also co-signatories in the letter to Dodaro.
Congress has requested GAO to report on the effectiveness of federal and Commonwealth government programs to train U.S. citizens that will be replacing foreign workers in the CNMI. Sablan and the two senators also want an assessment on the possible economic impact of ending the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Nonimmigrant Visa program in 2019.
The legislators also requested the government and private sectors to provide examples of their efforts to recruit U.S. eligible workers and look for models the Commonwealth could use.
Sablan said that Congress relies on GAO reports to be objective. “Any observations or recommendations the agency produces will certainly carry weight in the ongoing decision-making about continuation or modification of minimum wage increases, the existing foreign worker program, and investments in training and recruiting U.S. workers for jobs in the CNMI,” he said.
Sablan said he looks forward to reviewing GAO’s report and that he has a great deal of respect for Frieberg and his team, which he consults regularly in the reports they made on certain issues that affect the Marianas, regional security, and other matters.
He arranged for Frieberg’s team to meet with leaders from the CNMI government and the community when they conducted their field work and investigation. He then thanked all individuals who cooperated when GAO was collecting data about the Commonwealth’s economy and in doing first-hand interviews to learn how federal policies affect everyone in the CNMI.
CW1 cap limitations
GAO met with foreign worker groups including the United Filipino Organization last week. They also met with the Bangladesh and Chinese groups where the main focus is to gather information on workers affected by the CW1 numerical cap set by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
UFO public information officer Carlito Marquez said the mass expiration of CW1 permits at the end of December and workers affected by the numerical cap were among the concerns that they raised with Frieberg and other GAO representatives.
Marquez said they informed GAO of the CW1 deferred action on those with expiring CW1 permits was already late, as a number of foreign workers have already left before it was issued.
“We also inquired if the deferred action issued for expired and about to expire CW permits of foreign workers for 2016 would also be applicable to those CWs who are about to or had already expired for the year 2017,” added Marquez.
He said GAO representatives then asked them if foreign workers groups assist those who have been affected by the CW1 numerical limit. “GAO’s major concern is for those CWs affected by way of family separation.Where are they getting their resources if they are jobless due to cap limitations?”
Marquez said UFO officers and members have been helping Filipino workers and their families that were affected.
US Senate adjourns
Sablan also said the Senate failed to act on his House Resolution 6401 that could have increased the CW1 numerical limit from 12,998 to 15,000. HR 6401 passed the House last week but got stalled after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) put on hold on all bills that reached the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee also objected to passing immigration legislation.
“We’re very fortunate to have been able to build bipartisan support in the House for legislation dealing with immigration and win passage without any dissent. Immigration is one of the most difficult issues to manage in Congress,” said Sablan.
“Even if the direct effect of any legislation is just confined just to the Mariana Islands, as was the case with the bill I got through the House. For that reason, even though we’re successful in the House, I have been cautious about raising hopes back home.”
Results of the Section 902 consultations—between panels led by CNMI Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Esther Kia’aina—and the GAO study are expected to influence congressional decisions in the future. The 902 report is expected later this month while GAO’s study is set to be released on April 1 next year.