I appreciate that the members of the Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp. took the time to meet with me during their lobbying trip to Washington. It is regrettable that NMBAC came away from our meeting disappointed. Unfortunately, I cannot please everybody. But I do try to listen to the diverse and often conflicting voices that make up our community, many of which claim to speak in the best interests of all the people of the Marianas, and some of which sometimes say they want one thing and then change their minds later. It’s not easy, but I signed on to work for the people of the Marianas.
NMBAC, as I understand it, is the lobbying arm of the Governor’s Strategic Economic Development Council. They came to Washington to advocate for their legislative proposals—a lengthy list of requests. Some of their requests I have already gotten done.
For example, they asked to bar construction workers from the CW program—that was accomplished with the enactment of H.R. 339, the Northern Marianas Economic Expansion Act, thanks in large part to the support of the governor and the business community. They also asked for a report from the Government Accountability Office on the Marianas’ economic prospects, including the impacts of ending the Commonwealth-Only Transitional Worker (CW) program. I requested that report last year, and GAO released the results of their study in May this year.
Some of NMBAC’s requests, however, will be difficult to sell in this anti-foreign worker, Republican administration and Congress. I have explained this reality to NMBAC repeatedly. For example, increasing the CW cap to 18,000 (nearly doubling the number currently in effect) will be a very heavy lift, especially given the relatively high number of unemployed U.S. citizens and residents according to the Commonwealth government’s own data, and the Commonwealth government’s record of waiving its own requirements for U.S. hires. Furthermore, splitting the Guam-CNMI visa waiver program, although desired by certain business interests in the Marianas, has nothing to do with an extension of the transition program, and will only distract from, and may even undermine, that effort. I have said this many times—in meetings with NMBAC, their individual members, and members from other sectors of the community. Yet NMBAC is still pushing for visa waiver bifurcation.
I want to be very clear that NMBAC is not the only group I have met with to discuss labor issues. Over the last two years alone, I have also met with the governor and his staff, the Governor’s Strategic Economic Development Council, local legislators, mayors, the Chamber of Commerce, the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Society of Human Resource Management, small business owners who do not participate in any associations, U.S. workers and their advocates, CW workers and their advocates, lawyers, journalists, health care professionals, social workers, law enforcement officers, thought leaders, educators, and students.
It is my job as delegate to consult with the people I represent, to sort through their competing interests and concerns, to weigh the available data and facts on the ground, and to make the best decision that I can, based on all of these factors, about the way forward. It is also my job to take the best available information that I have to make our case in Washington, and work with my congressional colleagues to figure out what’s possible, what can be achieved to improve the lives of the people I represent.
In Congress, we legislate. And in developing legislation, we negotiate and compromise. That’s the nature of the work. Because for a measure to pass, we must have the support of at least 218 members of the House and a minimum of 51 Senators, whose priorities and concerns may not be in line with our own. And because each senator can block movement on a bill, the support of key senators is critical to every legislative effort.
As I have said before in many meetings, press conferences, and news releases, I am now part of a bipartisan, bicameral working group that is developing legislation to carry the Marianas beyond 2019, when the current transition program expires. The working group is led by Senator Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over the insular areas. The group is still agreeing on the limits that will shape this legislation.
I can say at this time that my priorities are two-fold: 1) to ensure that there is sufficient labor available to keep the Marianas economy moving forward; and 2) to ensure that the number of U.S. workers continue to increase over time. We have made some progress in recruiting, training, and hiring U.S. workers these past nine years since federal immigration law was extended to the Marianas, but as we know, as the data show, we still have a long way to go.
As I tried to explain to NMBAC at my meeting on Monday, I am not at liberty to disclose the details of working group conversations that are, at this point, still preliminary, sensitive, and confidential. Building trusting relationships is critical to getting anything done in Congress. Everything I have been able to accomplish in Congress—from labor legislation to boosting funding for education, health care, infrastructure, and food assistance—has been through the strong relationships of trust that I have built on both sides of the aisle these past nine years.
I also explained that I have asked that the working group include the governor in these talks. When the chair decides to issue that invitation is not my call, but I understand the governor’s legislative proposal was transmitted to the chair some time ago.
I recognize and understand the anxiety in our community about the future, and the need for transparency about the work underway in Washington. I am doing my best to reach out to constituents across our community to make sure that I am hearing a broad range of perspectives. I am pushing to include the governor in the working group. When legislation is introduced, I want to assure the people I represent that there will be a public hearing and ample opportunity for comment. In the meantime, although I regret that NMBAC was not happy after their meeting with me this week, I will continue to welcome their feedback, as I welcome feedback from all constituents about the work I am doing for them.
Sablan is the CNMI Delegate to U.S. Congress.