Sablan: Education on ‘touchback’ rule continues


As the impending exodus of hundreds of foreign workers in the CNMI nears, CNMI stakeholders are scrambling to educate members of the U.S. Congress on the detrimental impact the looming “touchback” requirement would have on the CNMI’s recovering economy.

According to Alex Sablan, who is a member of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors, as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services prepares to implement the “ touchback” provision that would result in the exodus of hundreds of CW-1 workers next year, the GCEA is still hopeful that through open conversations and data, they, in tandem with Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (D-MP), can educate members of the U.S. Congress about the harmful effects this rule would have on the CNMI as a whole.

Touchback refers to a U.S. immigration rule that requires a holder of a work visa to exit the U.S. after three consecutive approvals of his or her work visa and wait outside the U.S. while his new work visa is being processed.

“We have new staffers for new congressmen, new senators…there’s always a revolving door of staffers and so we’re always having to go in and educate. We’re educating the Senate side of the equation for Energy and the Natural Resources. We’re hopeful that we can continue this dialogue with Congressman Kilili so he can be our champion for legislation—legislation that strikes a balance,” he said.

Sablan explained that the exodus of foreign workers in the CNMI—technically called CNMI-Only Transitional workers or CW-1s—is not the only issue with the impending touchback, but the purpose of the provision, which was purposely created to weed out repeat CW-1 visa holders until the conclusion of the program in 2029.

“Touchback is a sensitive issue at the end of the day. It’s like the H2-B: You have two sessions of three years under H2-B and that individual does not return to the United States workforce. …So in relation to that, that’s sort of what we had been told [by USCIS] is ‘Listen, we’ve put this provision in because we don’t want to continue to perpetuate individuals returning back into the program.’ Basically, look for another individual, or find another worker, or focus on a U.S. citizen workforce,” Sablan said.

However, the CNMI economy does not have the numbers to operate solely off a U.S. citizen workforce, as much as it would like to, and that is what GCEA is striving to educate members of the U.S. Congress on.

“The backbone of this economy is small businesses and they don’t have the continuity to lose one or two people for any given time. So that’s what we’re trying to explain is that we wish we had the numbers we needed for U.S. citizen workforce, but we don’t. That’s why CW-1 workers are required, especially for the small businesses that can’t fill that void, with, again, service industry positions that aren’t necessarily being filled by U.S. citizen workforce. And that’s predominantly the same way across the United States,” he said.

As of last week, USCIS issued an advisory on the impending touchback provision that could possibly give hundreds of CW-1 workers an extra year before they are required to leave the Marianas.

Previously, a worker approved on or after June 18, 2020, for a one-year CW-1 validity period was eligible for two more consecutive petition validity periods. So, touchback would be required at the end of the 2023 validity period. In its announcement last week, USCIS has now refined that policy to cover petitions granted on or after June 18, 2020, that also had a starting validity date on or after that date. This effectively means that for some workers, touchback would not be required until the end of the 2024 petition, an extra year.

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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