Governor didn’t ask for extension of CW program
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ trip to the nation’s capitol last month was a series of meetings with officials over issues of immigration, environment, and federal aid for the CNMI. Torres also got an update on late governor Eloy S. Inos’ request for direct consultation with the White House on issues of immigration and the military training in the CNMI.
Torres disclosed as much in an interview with reporters Tuesday, but also had some pointed words for the congressional delegation that visited the CNMI, while he was on his trip.
That CODEL, from the largest subcommittee in the U.S. House Armed Services committee, was led by Readiness chair Readiness subcommittee chair Rob Wittman (R-VA 1st District) and Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU). The two members trumpeted that military training in the Marianas meant more security for the region and economic opportunity.
“It is our responsibility to tell them what is good for us, not the other way around,” Torres said, when asked if he appreciated the visit.
If I am not mistaken, from the information I gathered, Congresswoman Bordallo came to Saipan telling us what is good for us with the military. I can tell you that on behalf of the government and the people of the CNMI, we are very sensitive to the type of military proposals” that are on the table.
Among others, the Department of Defense plans to use Tinian for live-fire ranges and to lease the entire island of Pagan for these purposes.
“We are just thankful now that the Air Force has come in and wants to do the divert airfield only on Tinian and so we are waiting for that. But we in the CNMI and the government will be communicating with the military and it is our obligation to make sure they hear our concerns and what we are willing to assist [with] our military family as well,” Torres said.
Torres gave an update on the pending request for direct consultation with the White House on issues of immigration and military build up in the Commonwealth.
“They are bucking on down on who [will be] representing” them “on those two items,” Torres told reporters Tuesday, and described the team he’d be putting together for talks between the White House and CNMI.
“Pete A., former DPL [secretary Pedro A. Tenorio] will be one of your consultants for the 902 talks. He’s been there. He has the institutional knowledge. I’m in constant talk with some of the legislators, specifically, those that are chairing the federal relations” committees,” Torres said. “Our legal counsel, Wes [Bogdan] will be joining us. I have not officially invited any one on this, however we continue to have a dialogue, because there are so many interests to join on these 902 talks. But as much as I’d like to accommodate everyone, it’s actually a fairly handful of people that would be on the table to negotiate.”
Torres emphasized they “don’t want 20” people “on each side” in the talks.
“That’s the reason why I haven’t invited specific individuals because I would like to see the guidelines proposed by the President regarding the 902 talks,” Torres said. “What are the guidelines, what are the scopes of work, those are the information I need to base our decision on who should go and the number of participants.”
Torres also met with immigration officials like Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, discussing issues ahead of the end of the local contract worker program in 2019.
“We didn’t ask for an extension,” Torres said, when asked. “No, we didn’t. The reason why is—we came to D.C. to acknowledge that we in the government are also doing our due diligence to encourage our business partners, our government, to hire local, to hire U.S. citizens.
“And if we show we are doing what we can to the best that we can, and in the end we still have that shortage,” he added, “we can go ahead and ask for that extension.”
Torres said the critical part of the issue was that Congress took away the authority of the U.S. secretary of the Department of Labor to extend the program past 2019.
Public Law 110-229—transferred local immigration control to the federal government and allowed for a transition period to end in 2014. That transition period was extended last year to 2019, the current and absolute deadline the CNMI now faces.
Torres emphasized that any extension of the worker program has to be requested through U.S. Congress.
“That’s the biggest” thing,” he said. “We continue to lobby to give that back to the secretary of Labor to make that determination whether an extension is needed or not.”
Torres said they also echoed concerns of CNMI’s infrastructure and business development that were “hampered” because of a slow-going permitting process.
While Torres said he thanked USCIS for a 240-day rule to allow contract workers to continue working if USCIS had not yet processed their papers past the permit expiration, he noted that the rule was only applicable to the current CW worker pool, and not the ones requested for looming development.
“We’ve had [delays] for several months already and that has been hampering our development. We did echo that concern. We also asked, is there anyway the CNMI government can be part of the process, or at least [to have] for us to know where our applicants are [in permitting process] and if we can give special attention and effort to expedite those papers and applicants,” Torres said.
Torres also described his trip as part giving thanks to federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency—which were instrumental in Saipan’s recover after Typhoon Soudelor—and inviting federal counterparts he met in the nation’s capitol.
“I invited all of them. Make no mistake, I invited every single, almost every person that I met to come down,” Torres said. “Specifically, the departments that I met [with] so they know what we’re going through, the struggles that we are going through and the success we are going through.
“I met with the FEMA during the dinner at the White House. I met with Mr. William Craig Fugate [FEMA administrator]. When I sat on the table, he asked me, ‘How are those concrete poles?’—So he’s never been here but obviously through all the works that have been done and the declaration [of disaster] from the president, I invited him and I invited everyone that I met to come down to see the progress.
Still, Torres said there were some issues that FEMA and the CNMI could address to better help the community.
“On the island we have a different way of living versus the United States. For a lot of our culture, we eat outside, we have an outside kitchen, the dirty kitchen. We spend a lot of our time outside.
“When the typhoon came, that was not part of the dwelling [considered for federal aid]. So we had a lot of our folks not compensated where we feel it was home. So those are things that I echoed out,” Torres said.
On environmental issues, Torres said he spoke about how the Endangers Species Act could affect islands like those of the CNMI, concerns he said which were echoed by the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“I spoke about here we have an abundance of a lot [species] categorized as endangered. For example, green sea turtles. On island we have a lot of green sea turtle but more so our neighboring islands on the side are harvesting this.
“…It seems like we are the sanctuary, and our neighboring islands are harvesting what we are protecting,” Torres said, recalling a concern expressed by Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp.
“My other question was—for whatever species you put on the endangered species act, what is the threshold to remove it from endangered species? That was a lot of the discussion at the [Interagency Group on Insular Areas].
On the issue of corals, Torres pointed to how larger countries can affect smaller islands with pollutants that contribute to climate change and its effects like coral bleaching.
“I don’t say we have no choice,” Torres said, “but whatever the bigger countries, whatever the environmental damage [they] produce, it affects us. And we need to protect our coral and that’s our livelihood here.
Torres said he also was introduced to Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a former gaming commissioner, who asked Torres about the CNMI revenues and its industry.
“So I will be communicating with him. He was a former gaming commissioner, prior to being a governor. And there is a relationship there,” Torres said. “He has offered his assistance to our gaming commission here on a personal level as well as a professional level. I will be extending an invitation for him to come when we are having our grand opening” for the Saipan casino in Garapan.