‘Zero flights make touchback provision nearly impossible’

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The Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp. believes that the “touchback” provision in the Northern Marianas Islands U.S. Workforce Act of 2018—which would require foreign workers to ‘touch back” (or temporarily return) to their country of origin—would severely hurt CNMI businesses, even more so with the current recession as a result of COVID-19.

In an interview with NMBAC chair Alex Sablan, he said most businesses’ biggest concern with the touchback provision is the logistics of having to send workers home when there are no flights due to COVID-19. Businesses are required to cover the cost to send foreign workers home and then return to the CNMI.

Additionally, although it isn’t impossible to send foreign workers home, charter flights are extremely costly, Sablan said, and would hurt businesses even more since there is no money coming into the islands due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are charters being discussed but it’s going to be costly and, at this time, this is going to really hurt the businesses. That’s the downside. We have to send a lot of people home at a time when the economy isn’t making any money,” he said.

Right now, there are nearly zero international flights at the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport, with only United Airlines flying between Saipan and Guam. Other than United, the only other airline using the airport is Star Marianas Air, which mainly provides interisland travel.

Logistically, Sablan said, it might be nearly impossible to send workers off-island at this time since the CNMI has thousands of foreign workers from various countries. These workers are also referred to as CW-1 holders, as they fall under the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker program.

“Logistically, its hard if we have to send back workers and now that is very difficult because we have no flights. We have workers from the Philippines, China, all over and that’s going to be impossible right now. That’s one of the main concerns of this touchback,” he said.

With U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services hosting a webinar on the U.S. Workforce Act of 2018 on July 29, the CNMI can expect clearer answers soon.

“We emailed our questions to USCIS before the webinar so hopefully we can get some answers there because I know everybody, majority of the businesses, are waiting on what’s going to happen now,” he said.

The touchback provision of the U.S. Workforce Act of 2018 requires a foreign worker to return to his or her home country for 30 days and will be processed again as a new CW-1 employee. After another three years in the CNMI, they have to “touch back” again.

According to Saipan Tribune archives, an Office of Insular Affairs report determined that less than 3,000 CNMI-Only Transitional workers qualify as “legacy” or “long-term” workers and are exempt from the newly implemented touchback provision.

Sablan said that the last OIA report estimates somewhere below 3,000 individuals who qualify as a “legacy” or “long-term” visa holder in the Commonwealth.

Kimberly Bautista | Reporter
Kimberly Albiso Bautista has covered a wide range of news beats, including the community, housing, crime, and more. She now covers sports for the Saipan Tribune. Contact her at kimberly_bautista@saipantribune.com.
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