CNMI-Only Work Visa Program To Be Decided Before 2014

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Kilili Sablan: decision on 5-year extension yet to be made

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Nov. 1, 2013) – Northern Marianas Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) said yesterday that the U.S. Department of Labor made a commitment to decide before the end of 2013 whether or not to extend the transitional Commonwealth-only (CW) work program beyond Dec. 31, 2014, months ahead of the July deadline for such a decision.

"They could have waited until July of next year to decide. Businesses and workers here need as much time as possible to plan ahead. It’s important to our economy… They are going to make a decision this year," Sablan said in an interview.

The delegate reiterated that he has not been given any reason not to extend the CW program "but I cannot tell you that they have decided to extend it."

"I helped get the department to make that commitment," he added.

The government and the private sector have asked for a five-year extension of the transitional Commonwealth-only worker program.

Without an extension beyond 2014, the CNMI loses immediate access to some 12,000 skilled and professional foreign workers that the tourism-based economy has relied upon for years, as the U.S. worker pool remains limited to take on most of these jobs.

In September, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security capped at 14,000 the number of foreign workers under the CW program in fiscal year 2014, a 6.66-percent cut from the current 15,000 cap.

The number of foreign workers under the CW program will drastically drop to zero after Dec. 31, 2014 unless extended.

‘Immigration bills’

Sablan said yesterday that rather than spend time responding to "politicking" by some of his detractors, he will keep on "working to make people’s lives better."

Sablan said if some people in the CNMI believe that the two comprehensive immigration reform bills currently pending in Congress—U.S. Senate S. 744 and U.S. House H.R. 15—violate the Covenant between the Northern Marianas and the United States, then they should bring the issue to the courts and not Congress.

"Some people have argued that it violates the Covenant. If it did, then the venue to go to for that is the courts, not Congress. If it did, then the federal courts would have found Public Law 110-229 violates the Covenant; the court hasn’t," he said.

Sablan also said the decision whether the federal government has any say on immigration policy "was made in 1975, when people overwhelmingly—by 79 percent—approved the Covenant."

The Northern Marianas Descent Corp. (NMD), led by its president Ana S. Teregeyo, reiterated this week its position that S. 744 infringes on the NMI’s Covenant agreement with the United States, "pertaining to the rights and benefits of the indigenous population."

The NMD Corp., which claims to represent at least 7,500 individuals of Northern Marianas descent, asked Sablan for a meeting on S. 744 "within seven days."

However, other people of Northern Marianas descent have been saying that the NMD Corp. led by Teregeyo, Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan), and former representative Daniel Quitugua, among others, does not represent them.

‘Inflated"

The NMD Corp. claims there would be 14,000 foreigners that could apply for green card, and then citizenship.

"I don’t know where they got the numbers," Sablan said, adding that this is such an "inflated" number.

He added that many people would have been in the CNMI for 30 years or so "by the time they even get a chance to apply for a change of status."

Sablan said if there’s no CNMI language in the immigration reform bills, "then we would have a problem."

Just the same, he said immigration reform is a big "if" this year.

"But I say this much. If Speaker Boehner were to place S. 744 on the floor today, it has enough votes to pass. If anybody has any objection to any parts of the Senate S. 744, then they should address it to the senators. They need to go and give the senators seven days to meet with them or else the sky is gonna fall," he added.

What matters most

Sablan said there are a lot more important things for the lives of CNMI people than the politics played by some.

One of them includes raising food stamp benefits. The U.S. House and Senate began yesterday a conference committee on a FARM bill, and the conferees included a $33 million program to bring the CNMI into the national food stamp program over the next five years. Sablan has been pushing for the CNMI’s inclusion in the SNAP.

"That will be money in our economy—good for business, creating jobs. That will be good for the people who need help feeding their families," he said.

Last week, the House passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which included Sablan’s provision doubling the waiver of the local match that the CNMI has to pay for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects in the Commonwealth—from $200,000 to $400,000.

Sablan said the hospital remains open and certified because of the hard work of the people at the hospital and the over $20 million they have gotten in new Medicaid money from the Affordable Care Act.

"I helped get that money at a meeting with the president of the United States in the White House. And there’s another $80 million in the bank whenever the hospital draws it down," he said.

The delegate added that the Kagman Community Center also exists because of people’s hard work and because of the Affordable Care Act.

Sablan was one of 16 people who introduced legislation that made more students eligible for Pell grants and raised the amount of the grant.

"But also, when NMC [Northern Marianas College] was in danger of losing its accreditation this year, I helped them get meetings with the Department of Education," he said.

He also cited other developments including getting the long-awaited submerged lands bill to Obama’s desk at a time when there was gridlock.

"So, again, I am not interested in playing politics. I am working to make people’s lives better," he added.

FAS nonimmigrants

Sablan wrote a letter to Gov. Eloy S. Inos, seeking his recommendations for methodologies to practically account for services rendered to nonimmigrants from the Freely Associated States (FAS).

FAS citizens are those from Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia’s Pohnpei, Yap, Chuuk, and Kosrae.

This is in line with Section 13 of S. 1237 or the Omnibus Territories Act of 2013, which permits the CNMI and other jurisdictions the use of certain expenditures attributable to the presence of FAS nonimmigrants as offsets of local matching requirements for federal grants.

Acting governor Jude U. Hofschneider said yesterday he has not seen Sablan’s letter yet.

The governor is currently in Hong Kong to meet with prospective investors, Hofschneider said. House floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan) accompanied the governor and they are expected to be back on Saturday.

Sablan said in refining the language in Section 13, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is interested in defining how these expenditures will be accounted for by all U.S. territorial governments.

He said the accounting of the costs of providing services to FAS nonimmigrants has been problematic.

Territorial governments have not always made a distinction between nonimmigrants who arrived before the Compact with any FAS went into effect, nor fully accounted for in the form of payment, in the form of taxes by these nonimmigrants for services used.

Sablan said he understands the CNMI government has generally computed the percentage of FAS nonimmigrants relative to a given agency’s total caseload and attributed that percentage of the agency’s expenditures to FAS nonimmigrants.

"This system is straightforward but may result in under- or over-reporting of the actual costs to the Commonwealth," he added.

He said there’s also interest in the feasibility of a more direct, one-to-one method of accounting.

For example, recording the number of days a FAS nonimmigrant is incarcerated and multiplying that number by the per-day cost of incarceration might produce a more accurate accounting of the CNMI’s expenditure.

The Inos administration had said that in the CNMI’s calculation, the total cost to the CNMI of hosting FAS citizens has not been paid by the U.S. government and this amount is some $200 million.

The U.S. has a different position, however as it provided $1.9 million Compact Impact funding for fiscal year 2013. This is much lower than the $5.2 million or more that the CNMI used to receive.

That’s because from 3,570 FAS citizens in 2003, the CNMI hosted just 2,100 in 2008, based on a survey.

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