Torres offers possible solutions

Posted on Feb 20 2019

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres has offered Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan possible solutions to fix the current predicament the CNMI is experiencing regarding the H-2B visa eligibility of skilled workers from the Philippines.

In that spirit, he invited Sablan in a letter last week to a meeting to discuss the needs of the people of the CNMI in relation to federal workforce laws.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declared last month that construction workers from the Philippines, Dominican Republic, and Ethiopia could no longer be brought into the United States under the H-2B visa program due to potential abuses.

This is worrisome for the CNMI since the Philippines is its primary source of construction workers.

Torres said the provision on construction workers being prohibited to use the CW-1 [CNMI-Only Transitional Worker] program based on U.S. Public Law 115-218—or the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act of 2018—has become a problem that prevents the community from getting the needed labor force to rebuild homes and other infrastructure after the devastation of Super Typhoon Yutu last October.

“I write to you in this spirit with the hopes of gaining your cooperation and assistance in bringing normalcy back to the lives of people who have been affected by the recent disasters,” said Torres in his letter to Sablan.

Torres added that the issue has shown that the CNMI does not have enough workers in the construction trades—plumbers, carpenters, masons, etc.—to help the community build a typhoon-resilient community.

“While I understand that the impetus behind the prohibition of construction workers was the assumption that there would be available opportunities to source construction labor through the H-2B visa classification, this is not the case now,” said Torres.

“As made apparent based on a 2016 interpretation of the regulatory language governing the qualification of what constitutes a ‘temporary need,’ many petitions filed by construction firms for H-2B labor have been denied, effectively closing off all legal avenues for the CNMI to source the labor necessary to undertake the massive rebuilding effort that is needed.”

Legislative fix

Torres has offered two possible legislative remedies that are projected to result in positive outcomes for the Commonwealth.

“I ask for your consideration in championing amendments to P.L. 115-218 to include an exemption to the prohibition on construction occupations, Section 6(a)(3)(D)(v), for petitions within a maximum allowable quota that will be provided annually to the [the U.S. Department] of Homeland Security Secretary and [U.S. Department of Labor] Secretary under Section 6(b)(3)(B) of the law,” said Torres.

“Additionally, I ask that you consider an inclusion into the forthcoming disaster spending appropriation for the CNMI that would mirror the provision contained in U.S. P.L. 115-232, Section 1045, allowing for H-2B workers to be granted admission into the CNMI to perform labor in the performance of contracts or subcontracts for construction, repairs, renovations, or facility services that is connected or associated with a presidential disaster declaration for a period of five years following the declaration.”

He suggested the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the federal agency that would certify activities connected to recovery efforts.

Critical to the recommendation, Torres said, is the authorization of the CNMI government or a regional labor entity “such as those currently present in Guam, to be the responsible party in the issuance of foreign labor certifications.”

“As is currently, the practice in Guam under U.S. P.L. 115-232, a local certification authority would be responsible to work alongside FEMA representatives to define eligibility requirements and processes for petitioning foreign labor in construction occupations related to the repair and recovery of our islands.”

Torres said that the solutions that he suggested are based on existing provisions as he asked Sablan to use his connections beyond party lines in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Measures such as these are necessary to ensure our residents have the skilled laborers to repair and rebuild homes that are more resilient to the next disaster and the processes I have recommended here use existing provisions that are employed today,” he said.

“I ask that you work with your Democratic and Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives to see that the needs of our people recovering from [Super] Typhoon Yutu continue to be met.”

Torres’ DC schedule

Torres left for Washington, D.C. yesterday to attend the four-day National Governors Association winter meeting from Feb. 23 to 26. He will be out for almost two weeks. He has also scheduled to meeti with U.S. congressional members and officials from the White House, DHS, FEMA, U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of the Insular Affairs, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Torres has requested the federal government to convene the Section 902 Talks in connection with the CNMI’s immigration issues and its economic viability.

He is scheduled to meet with acting Interior secretary David Berhardt, and Insular and International Affairs assistant secretary Douglas W. Domenech, before the NGA meeting.

Torres and the four other U.S. territory governors are scheduled for the 2019 Senior Plenary Session of the Interagency Group on Insular Areas at the White House on Feb. 25, Monday, and will also meet with Sablan later in the afternoon at the CNMI Delegate’s office.

The following day, Feb. 26, Torres and the other governors of the territories, at the invitation of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), will testify before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

On Feb. 27, Torres is scheduled to testify before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee on an invitation by Sablan in connection with the hearing on the CNMI Delegate’s H.R. 560—the Northern Mariana Islands Residents Relief Act—and the impact of the Philippines’ H-2B worker visa eligibility. He would end the day with a meeting with DoD officials.

Jon Perez | Reporter
Jon Perez began his writing career as a sports reporter in the Philippines where he has covered local and international events. He became a news writer when he joined media network ABS-CBN. He joined the weekly DAWN, University of the East’s student newspaper, while in college.
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