Ultimate goal: Repeal touchback rule

Chamber also has 2 other recommendations to alleviate problem

Alex Sablan

At a time when the Commonwealth needs all the manpower it can muster to recover from the current economic doldrums brought about by super typhoons and the COVID-19 pandemic, Saipan Chamber of Commerce director Alex Sablan said the CNMI’s ultimate goal is to have the problematic touchback rule on CNMI-Only Workers repealed by U.S. Congress.

“We seem to, as a usual scenario in the Commonwealth, come at the 11th hour to try to put out fires. We are on fire. And so we need to get this legislation in as quickly as possible. Very thankful that Congressman [Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan] is very supportive, he is looking forward to our recommendations, of which we are pursuing three,” he said during yesterday’s Saipan Chamber of Commerce monthly meeting at Kensington Hotel Saipan.

The touchback rule of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is one of the biggest issues the business sector in the CNMI is facing this fiscal year. The rule affects certain CNMI-Only Workers who are required to exit the Commonwealth for 30 days before their employers can even apply for their renewals.

“We are looking at the touchback [rule] and the ultimate scenario would be to repeal it entirely or to find some modifications that would allow us to submit an application—the individual would go on vacation, they should go on vacation annually—but then we are able to submit the application as they are on vacation. Submit an application and go through the process and steps for U.S. citizens first, if there is no U.S. citizen available for that particular vocation, then we would obviously work toward CW-1,” he said.

The Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers’ Tourism Infrastructure Reboot Committee chair said the second item will deal with the CNMI’s diminishing pool of CWs that started with a quota of 1,300.

“This scenario, as we talked about, does not help us. We are going to be well below our pre-COVID-19 numbers once we come out of this whole mess we are in right now in the economy. And that’s not going to help new businesses, new hotels like Crowne Plaza, which is going to build 160 more rooms. We are having difficulty just trying to man the current renovated facility and many other hotels, and businesses across the spectrum.”

He said the third item the Chamber is looking at is bringing the process of issuing Temporary Labor Certificates closer to home.

“Guam has had a provision since the ’60s that allows the Guam Department of Labor and the Guam governor to certify all TLCs within Guam. So they filter it, they determine there was no citizen present for a particular vocation and so they sign off on it. We’re asking for the same provision within the Commonwealth.”

Each day that passes, more and more CWs are losing their status and Sablan said the Chamber is cognizant of that.

“We have 2,800 out of the 9,000 that were within the CW [visa class] have lost their status in the Commonwealth. That is more than a quarter of our total workforce, so things are going to get rougher in the Commonwealth.

He also said that TLCs are getting significant denials, and/or are not getting approved or delayed; and then the USCIS process is also delayed.

“…they all have the same problem we got, they are dealing with manpower shortages within the federal government, and now they are trying to wrap up the ability to train individuals, they’ve even go so far as to get directors and leadership trained up in the process as well at the California Service State Facility.”

Sablan also shared some good news when he said the Chamber “is looking at a provision within the touchback for the remaining balance of individuals that are on island. So, if you had a renewal within this recent timeline, or in about a year, or a year and a half, they have established that they won’t take the time of which you applied which has been the normal course, but they will count the day from which you are approved and have received a permit…so many of the CWs that were on the realm of touchback, seem to have a renewed timeline for the touchback. It doesn’t help the 2,800 that have already fallen off the grid here, but they will get this provision and notice soon, so that’s coming in the next few days.”

Sablan added that the members of the White House, USCIS, as well as delegate Sablan were understanding of the CNMI’s dilemma and situation, and that it has been explained that prior to COVID-19, the CNMI was at a 50/50 balance of CW and U.S. workers, and was at the height of our economy, but have lost many CW workers since then.

“Yes, U.S. citizens are filling those positions, and that’s great to see, but in order to open up the greater economy, we need our CW workforce in place again, striking a balance…” he said.

Sablan also asked the cooperation of all businesses employing CWs to provide fast and accurate information to USCIS.

“We need everybody in the Commonwealth to provide the information required by law. They have sent the information to us that they are having big difficulties getting the CW information from all of the applicants that are coming in. So more than 60% of applicants failed to provide the information required when you do bring somebody in, there’s a reporting required, due within six months of their arrival into the Commonwealth, that is not being adhered to, and that’s what is delaying a significant number of the applications within the USCIS TLC process.”

Sablan said the Chamber is hopeful that they can somehow find a way to compel employers of all groups to fulfill the requirements.

“… this is the statistic that we need, in order to justify to Congress why there is a requirement for continued CW when we’re well below our 50 percentile of our quota in this timeline. We’re doing enough narratives, enough storylines but, we all need to come together, we need everybody in this community to fulfill the requirements of the public law…”

Chrystal Marino | Correspondents | Correspondents
A correspondent for Saipan Tribune, Chrystal Marino enjoys travelling, writing and meeting new people. When she is not writing, she finds ways to be involved in the community. She currently covers community beats. For any community news stories reach out to her at chrystal_marino@saipantribune.com.
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