Torres defends improved status for long-time foreign workers

Governor also justifies extension of CW program

Against backlash, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres defended yesterday his official request that the federal government provide improved status or a pathway for long-time foreign workers to become legal permanent residents in the Commonwealth, making his first public comments on the “Section 902” meetings between top federal officials and CNMI officials last week on the CNMI’s expiring contract worker program.

Torres, speaking to reporters at a press conference yesterday, welcomed the criticism, saying that it was part of his job.

He was asked about complaints that the local government did not invest enough to train its U.S. and local workforce to meet the demands that would be left by the zeroing out the contract worker program in 2019. Some critics have also claimed that Torres’ request for improved status fell out of step with the wishes of Northern Marians Descent, who acknowledge themselves as the “people” of the CNMI.

To this criticism, Torres said the government has put efforts in its Department of Labor and has the local college and trades institute to provide a skilled local workforce on island.

Still, the governor added: “The bottom line is no matter what we do we don’t have enough workforce, U.S. workers…Even when they [U.S. government] implemented [CW program] back in 2010, we didn’t have enough. Now that our economy is rebounding, it will make it harder to get our U.S. workers.

“We have companies going as far as Puerto Rico, FSM, New Jersey,” he stressed. “And we have folks coming back from the States,” he added, “who are working now in the private sector.” The governor went on to stress there are “opportunities out there” for locals and graduates.

Torres officials also say, citing Department of Labor statistics, that there are about 940 locals currently listed as “actively seeking” employment under the department’s labor workforce program, and that even if 900 were to be gainfully employed that would not meet the projected demands of developers who are estimated in total to need 15,000 to 18,000 workers to operate many of the entry level jobs that will drive their operations

Officials have also noted how a major developer last year spent over $2 million on hiring outreach in the U.S., only to hire about 140 for work on island and see 68 of these leave the island, which meant the developer spent over a $100,000 for each U.S. hire, only to see half of them leave.

Officials also highlight that despite the “transition” aspect of the CW program that Congress mandated into affect some six years ago, the federal government did not provide enough of the tools or resources to help with this transition.

With 5,000 new hotel rooms expected in the next five years, the private and public sector officials estimate labor demands at over 11,000.

Still, there are some who would label these points as “excuses.”

A petition—seemingly created in response to Torres’ and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan’s (Ind-MP) support of improved status—titled, “No! To CW Extension and the Granting of a Blanket US Permanent Residency,” argues against these points, calling them excuses.

Created by Juanita Mendiola, who may or not be the same commenter that frequents the online versions of the local newspapers, the petition urges U.S. President Barack Obama to “force” the application and end of the contract worker program, which currently employs some 10,000 workers, many of whom have families in the NMI.

“Please FORCE us to accept and implement US PL#110-229 [the federal law that created the CW program] and help ourselves restore the dignity and pride we once had as a nation of PEOPLE and be the United States’ jewel in the Pacific Ocean we once dreamed of becoming,” the petition states.

The petition largely argues that CNMI failed in foresight and to plan its socioeconomic growth. This left it with an “unhealthy political ambiance similar to third world countries.” It notes concerns with foreign workers that have “outranked the indigenous” and labor use that the petition said led to the enactment of the transition worker program.

It also claims locals over the last 30 years could only find equitable or nearly equitable jobs “to their education” “in government” and those without political connections were left underemployed in the private sector.

“Compounding this is the lucrative source of business revenue from food stamp whose beneficiaries include children of ‘GUEST’ workers who were born in the CNMI and subsidized housing for low-income families. Therefore, the existence of the food stamp program and housing subsidy justify low wages forcing local U.S. citizens out of the workforce arena but clearly enjoyed by the guest workers with dual citizen children.”

‘No solutions yet’

The ball appears to be in the federal government’s park with the issue of the hundreds of foreign workers, not including their families, who are forced to leave the CNMI through the end of the fiscal year.

Torres said they made clear to federal officials the fact that between 1,300 and 1,400 employees are forced to leave the economy was in itself a humanitarian issue.

He was speaking to the breach of the federally mandated cap on contract worker this fiscal year and the federal government’s notice that these workers had 10 days to pack their bags and depart the Commonwealth after their permit expires.

Torres, though, acknowledged that “nothing has changed” since he met with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez after the 902 meetings last week.

One remedy that Torres offered to federal officials was they revise their reduction of the cap—currently at 12,999—which they had dropped by 1,000 for this fiscal year. Torres recommended that it be revised to 13,998, potentially creating more space for permits.

Asked if USCIS had agreed to any of their requests or demands, Torres said, “No, they have not…We plead our case and where we stand” and “echoed same concerns we have with immediate and short and long term” fixes.

Torres said that the federal officials indicated they would “look into our concerns.”

Asked again if there were any “definite answers,” Torres said “No.”

“You have to be mindful if we are going to change the law through amendment of Public Law 110-229 that has to be a legislation. So if we are going to be making changes that process is a long-term process,” he said, speaking to the request for improved status.

He also disclosed lobbying efforts senators and representatives in U.S. Congress last week to urge immigration officials to give that “extra effort to address the immediate concern of the expiring employees.”

“I want them [employees] to understand that we are waiting for USCIS to give them the immediate changes that we request. I don’t want to give anyone false hope. But we do need to give that hope…and ask for their patience,” Torres said.

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at

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