U.S. House Passes Bill Increasing Cap On CNMI-Only Foreign Worker Visas

If approved, quota will jump by more than 2,000 workers

By Cherrie Anne E. Villahermosa

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Dec. 9, 2016) – Governor Ralph D.L.G. Torres on Thursday congratulated U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan for the passage of H.R. 6401, a bill that increases the numerical cap of the CNMI-Only Transition Worker Nonimmigrant Visa program.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by the Republican congresswoman of American Samoa, Amata Coleman Radewagen, was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday and now goes to the U.S. Senate.

It was Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who moved to suspend the rules and pass H.R. 6401 which will increase the CW cap in fiscal year 2017 from 12,998 to 15,000 — the level more than three years ago.

Bishop told the U.S. House that he supported “this excellent piece of legislation.”

The CNMI, he added, “is experiencing an economic resurgence, and they have for the last several years. However, there is a challenge with respect to maintaining a capable workforce to sustain that growth on the island, especially as they are phasing out the use of foreign workers. To do that, the phasing out, which is occurring at a rate that actually is detrimental to sustaining economic growth, we need to provide some kind of flexibility to the Northern Mariana Islands to meet this challenge. This bill does it in three specific ways, each of which is a commonsense solution to a very, very complex issue. It is a great bill, and I urge its adoption.”

Speaking on the floor of the U.S. House on Tuesday, Sablan said: “The economy of the Northern Mariana Islands grew at a rate of 3.5 percent last year, the fourth straight year of growth for my district. The Bureau of Economic Analysis announced the new data a week ago. This strong economic expansion is good news for the people of the Northern Mariana Islands. We desperately want this growth to continue because our economy is still only three-quarters of what it was in 2000. But there is a problem with keeping that growth going — our limited population.”

Sablan also presented letters from the governor, Senate President Frank Borja, Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. Chief Executive Officer Esther Muna and local business leaders expressing support for the bill.

Economic expansion demands workers, Sablan told his colleagues.

“We have struggled to bring more workers into our labor force.   Isolated as we are — 6,000 miles from the U.S. mainland — it is difficult to attract U.S. workers. Our employers have gone everywhere to recruit workers — Guam, the Freely Associated States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland.

“We have worked hard to raise the skills of our own local population. A special fee paid by employers of foreign workers has pumped $6 million into training.

“And we are succeeding. Since 2008, the number of U.S. workers has grown. There are 15 percent more U.S. workers in our labor force today than there were 10 years ago.

“U.S. workers are now a majority in our labor force — a huge turnaround for us.

“But we still find ourselves short of the workers we need — especially at this moment, when there are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new tourism development being invested in our islands.”

Sablan said his bill does several things:

“First, it will put more money into that training fund that is proving so successful at helping put our people to work.

“The bill also allows us to bring in a limited, additional number of foreign workers under the Commonwealth-only Transitional Worker program that was set up under federal law to help us build our U.S. labor force.

“The Transitional Worker program has reduced the number of foreign workers in the Marianas year after year.

“But this year the sudden increase in investment in new hotels and other tourism businesses has left us short.

“H.R. 6401 would give us an extra 2,000 workers — the same number we were allowed in 2013 — and only for the remainder of this fiscal year.

“This is a short-term fix to address an unexpected — and very welcome — change in the economic fortunes of the Northern Mariana Islands.

“The bill will also help us avoid this worker shortage in the years to come.

“Part of the problem this year has been that employers are not using other federal programs that can provide temporary labor for construction projects of the size and scale that are being built in the Marianas.

“So, H.R. 6401 bars employers from using the transitional program we have in the Marianas for new construction.

“This shift will not slow the economic expansion we have right now. But it will allow us to continue reducing the number of foreign workers permitted under the transitional program.

“It will continue the conversion to a predominantly U.S. labor force which is our long-term goal.”

Torres in a statement to Variety on Thursday said that the passage of the bill is an acknowledgment of how important and significant the CW program continues to be in the CNMI.

“It has always been our goal to bring in as many U.S. eligible workers into the labor force as possible, but in the absence of great numbers of U.S. eligible workers, the CNMI has to rely on this important increase [in the CW cap] to continue to provide for economic growth so families in the CNMI can enjoy a better standard of living.

“I congratulate Congressman Sablan for his work on seeing this bill through the House and we will continue to work with him to ensure our economy can continue to grow for the benefit of each resident of our CNMI.”

Marianas Variety
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