Gov. Ralph DLG Torres spent the weekend in Phoenix, Arizona, attending the winter meeting of the Western Governors Association.
Right after that, Torres would be heading to Washington, D.C. to continue his meetings with White House and congressional officials to attempt to obtain a reprieve on the 3,000 slot reduction in the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker program for fiscal year 2018 and the program’s expiration by 2019.
The WGA meeting in Arizona, held Dec. 1 to Dec. 2, was also attended by Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo.
The meeting featured discussions on regional issues, according to a statement from press secretary Kevin Bautista. It included talks about a workforce development initiative that seeks to “bridge the gap between prospective workers and employers.”
“The goal will be to create enhanced career opportunities for students, graduates, and displaced workers to help build a more vibrant regional economy,” according to a Torres administration statement.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, and U.S. Forest Service chief Tony Tooke offered keynote addresses.
On the issue of workforce development and infrastructure, Torres would be continuing his “active engagement on best practices with his colleagues from the West in order to strengthen the ongoing policy discussions surrounding labor and economic needs of the Commonwealth.”
Others at the WGA meeting included WGA chair and South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, WGA vice chair and Hawaii Gov. David Ige, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.
While in Arizona, Torres would be attending a Pacific Basin Development Council board meeting, during which Torres would be meeting with PBDC executive director Esther Kia’aina to touch on economic development in the Pacific and indigenous land ownership rights.
Chaired by Calvo, the PBDC is a regional organization founded back in 1980 and promotes development in the Pacific region as well as conduct research and implement projects in the area.
According to a separate administration statement last Thursday, it said that Torres’ Washington, D.C. trip will include discussions on a request for a reprieve of the CW reduction for fiscal year 2018.
Matt Deleon Guerrero and Alex Sablan, representing the business alliance called Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp., told the House of Representatives last Thursday about the CNMI’s request for a reprieve.
According to Deleon Guerrero, who also serves as Torres’ chief of staff, there is nothing in the law that prevents the Trump administration from bringing the current 3,000 CW-1 reduction back to just one, as was previously been done by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—as long as the number of CW-1 slots remain less than last fiscal year’s.
“[USCIS] makes annual reductions based on reductions of the previous year. What is allowed is increases within the year. So, for instance there is a reduction of 6,000 [CW-1 slots] for this fiscal year. If [USCIS] wants to increase the amount [of CW-1] permits within the fiscal year to more than what the reduction would have, as long as it’s below the previous year, it would be allowable,” Deleon Guerrero explained.
However, despite that tiny glimmer of hope to save the CW-1 program from elimination, Deleon Guerrero said a roadblock to the conversations is that movement within Congress must first be sought and this is something the NMBAC lacks.
Public Law 110-229, or the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, is the same law that federalized CNMI immigration and created the five-year CNMI-only Transitional Worker Program, or the CW-1 program, which has already been extended once by the authority of the U.S. Secretary of Labor back in 2014.
Current law provides that the expiration of the CW-1 program is at the end of calendar year 2019.
With the U.S. Secretary of Labor losing its discretionary authority in 2014 to extend the CW-1 program once more, only an act of Congress could extend the CW-1 program.
“We don’t have evidence to prove that something actually has to originate from Congress,” said Deleon Guerrero, adding that in order to further strengthen the counsel’s case for a CW-1 extension, elected leaders must also be in the same boat.
The establishment of the CW-1 program is premised around allowing the CNMI to nurture its own local workforce with the temporary aid of foreign workers. According to Deleon Guerrero, despite the efforts of the local legislature, reliance on foreign workers remains essential to the continuous growth of the CNMI economy.
During conversations with USCIS, Deleon Guerrero said the CNMI government has provided a lengthy history of local appropriations and, programs, suggesting that the “CNMI is doing [its] very best despite its limited resources” and it still is not enough without the CW-1 program.
“If we want the jobs we have created for local residents to remain, the economy to continue to grow and more opportunities to arise, legislation must be pushed at the federal level,” said a Torres administration statement. “[Torres] will continue to put in all his effort on this issue and work with the entire community in order to reach this collective goal.”
According to the same statement, Torres has been “working closely” with NMBAC, his Strategic Economic Development Council, and the Legislature to push forward with legislation in U.S. Congress through Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), and the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
“…There is too much at stake for the issue to hold off any further,” the statement said.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office has already concluded that eliminating the CW-1 program projects a 26- to 62-percent reduction in the CNMI’s 2015 gross domestic product, or GDP.
“Moreover, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the Commonwealth’s real GDP increased 28.6 percent in 2016 after increasing 3.8 percent in 2015,” the statement said.
Based on these federal reports, by not amending P.L. 110-229 to continue the CW-1 program beyond 2019, one may expect a “catastrophic” effect on the Commonwealth economy, the statement added.