Workforce law authors clarify intent of ‘touchback’

Posted on Jun 26 2020

Marianas businesses were intended to have flexibility when to send CW-1 workers home for a 30-day “touchback,” according to Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) and the other authors of the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act.

Sablan, along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), who each chair the committees with responsibility for the insular areas in the Senate and House, and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) jointly submitted an explanation of their intent to the Department of Homeland Security this week as part of the formal comment process on regulations governing the Act.

“Touchback” refers to a brief period when a foreign worker is required to exit the CNMI and return to his or her home country. The U.S. Workforce Act, also known as Public Law 115-218, says the employer of a CW-1 worker, who has been in the Marianas for three years, may not apply for a fourth, one-year work permit, until the worker has been outside of the United States for a 30-day period. But the Interim Final Rule that Homeland Security issued last month is unclear on the timing of that “touchback.”

The members of Congress, who wrote the legislation, wanted their intention to be well understood that touchback could occur at any time before submission of an application for a fourth year “to fit the touchback period into the business cycle in a manner that best meets their human resource needs.”

At the same time, the law’s authors renewed their commitment to U.S. workers in the Marianas. The touchback provision “was intended to emphasize to employers the temporary nature of the Commonwealth-Only Transitional Worker, or CW, program and further encourage that they hire U.S. workers, which is the underlying aim of the USWA,” the legislators wrote in their comment.

Sablan said he appreciated the continuing partnership of members of the bipartisan, bicameral working group that he had formed to draft the U.S. Workforce Act in 2017, as the CW program neared its end. The Workforce Act increased the number of CW permits and extended the CW program from 2019 through 2030 with a specific reduction in the number of permits each year.

The law required that Homeland Security issue regulations by January 2019, but the department missed that deadline. As a result, many of the protections for U.S. workers against unfair competition from CW workers have been delayed.

The legislators’ comment and comments submitted by other parties are publicly available at under docket number USCIS-2019-0003. (PR)

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