Bill contains CNMI special immigration provisions
CNMI investors holding E-2C visas can now heave a sigh of relief after the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives over the weekend passed H.R. 83, an insular areas bill that was used as the vehicle to fund most of the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year 2015.
Included in the measure is language authored by Delagate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), extending for five years certain immigration policies crucial to the Northern Mariana Islands economy.
The policies bar claims of asylum from the Northern Marianas, which is critical to the islands’ tourism industry; protect a small number of foreign investors, who were allowed to enter under Northern Marianas immigration law prior to 2009; and exempt the Northern Marianas and Guam from the cap on foreign workers, who may enter for temporary jobs, such as construction connected with the U.S. military build-up in the islands and resort development.
H.R. 83 passed the Senate with 56 yes votes, 40 no votes, and four abstentions. The same measure also hurdled the House in a narrow vote of 219-206.
The White House issued a statement last Friday saying President Barrack Obama supports enactment of H.R. 83.
Hard work pays off
Passage of H.R. 83 represents two years of work by Sablan to continue several existing policies critical to the health of the Northern Marianas’ economy. Six separate bills, including H.R. 83, have been introduced in this Congress, containing the language needed to extend the policies until 2019.
Even as H.R. 83 with its $1.1 trillion funding for the federal government moved closer to final passage, Sablan worked with leadership to have back-up legislation, H.R. 5803, passed by the House on Thursday in the event the massive spending bill failed. In the end, however, Sablan’s back-up plan was not necessary.
“I must say again how much I appreciate the assistance of Congresswoman Donna Christensen of the Virgin Islands, who was the original author of H.R. 83 and who allowed her bill to be used to help me get what I needed for the Northern Marianas,” Sablan said.
“Senator Lisa Murkowski also played a key role in getting us over the finish line. And Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer helped to guide what turned out to be a very complex and uncertain legislative process to a successful conclusion. We would not have won passage without the participation of these two individuals, especially, and many others in Congress on both sides of the aisle.”
Sablan recognized, too, the contribution of CNMI Gov. Eloy S. Inos, who understood the importance of the policies that would otherwise have expired on Dec. 31 and communicated his views to the Speaker of the House.
Sablan’s language extends for another five years provisions of the 2008 Consolidated Natural Resources Act. One bars claims of asylum from within the Northern Marianas and has helped assure that tourists from China can come to the islands without need of a visa. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that without Sablan’s bill the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service would have to spend $16 million to process asylum claims—or end the current system of entry for Chinese tourists. Visitors from China represent over a third of the Commonwealth’s tourist trade; and the number is growing.
Sablan’s language also keeps in place an exemption from the cap on the number of H visas that can be issued for the Northern Mariana Islands or Guam. Contractors on Guam asked for Sablan’s help because short-term, H visa workers will be needed for upcoming military construction on that island. Resort developers in the Northern Marianas, such as the Best Sunshine casino licensee, are likely to require large numbers of temporary construction workers, too.
Lastly, 261 foreign investors, who were allowed into the islands under the Northern Marianas’ own immigration law prior to 2009 and were given the right to remain in return for their investment, will be able to continue in a special, grandfathered visa status, E-2C, for five more years.
The giant spending bill also contains tens of millions of dollars for the Northern Marianas in grant funds for everything from childcare and education to water and sewer construction.
As well, H.R. 83 provides tens of millions of dollars in annual grant funding for the Northern Mariana Islands, including about $7 million in water and sewer construction money as a result of a formula change that Sablan and other insular area representatives have successfully in appropriation bills since 2010.
H.R. 83 also adds the insular areas to the places in the United States that can be promoted as part of the national tourism advertising campaign, BrandUSA, and renews the program for another five years.
Inos applauds Sablan, US Congress
Inos, meanwhile, was grateful for the CNMI’s nonvoting delegate to U.S. Congress for the passage of H.R. 83, without which the islands’ burgeoning tourism industry would’ve suffered some damage.
“I applaud the untiring efforts by our Congressman Sablan in protecting and fighting for the interests crucial to the CNMI. Furthermore, my administration certainly appreciates the White House’s statement in support of the enactment. Congress Sablan’s collaborative effort with colleagues such as Senator Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Donna Christensen as well as those across the aisle is an asset dear to the people of the CNMI and should be commended.”
The governor said the extension of special immigration provisions for the CNMI will certainly come in handy in growing the Commonwealth’s lone industry—tourism.
“As we are all aware, this enactment protects our CW program, our business investors, and our future needs for nonresident labor as we expect a construction boom in our tourism industry. I wish to personally extend my appreciation to Congressman Sablan, each of the 219 members of the House who supported this enactment, President Obama, Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and those who worked tirelessly to get this bill passed. With this level of collaborative cooperation where everyone has a positive input, the CNMI business community can confidently move forward with expansion and reinvestment plans. “I am equally pleased that it [HR 83] passed the U.S. Senate over the weekend, and now it’s on to the White House.”