U.S. Senate Approves More Foreign Worker Permits For CNMI In 2017

Office of the CNMI Congressional Delegate
Washington, DC

Aug. 2, 2017

The U.S. Senate approved by unanimous consent U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan’s bill making more CW foreign worker permits available for fiscal year 2017. H.R. 339 also puts more money into the fund for training U.S. workers for jobs in the Marianas economy. And the measure bars future use of CW permits for temporary construction workers. The recent surge of construction workers, using CW permits, forced hospital nurses to leave the Marianas and many local businesses to lose their long-time foreign workers.

Sablan’s legislation was amended in the Senate, and so now returns to the House for final approval before going to the president for signature. The bill previously passed the House without dissent. As amended, the bill sets aside at least 60 new permits for healthcare workers to address the needs of the commonwealth hospital and private medical clinics. Another 10 permits are reserved for power plant operators. There are 350 new permits in all. Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee jointly offered the amendment.

“Providing additional CW permits and setting aside some for critical occupations is a policy that the hospital and the commonwealth government have advocated for,” Congressman Sablan said. “This is an important development in the Marianas transitional immigration system, as is adding more money to the $9.9 million already invested in training our local workers.

“And I wanted to make sure that the problem of construction workers using up CW permits, crowding out long-time workers and hurting our local businesses, did not occur again,” the congressman added.

“I am very grateful to Senators Murkowski and Cantwell, who agreed to hold a hearing on my bill and then helped negotiate the amendment necessary to get unanimous consent from all members of the Senate last night,” Sablan said.

“There are 2,400 unemployed U.S. workers in the Marianas, according to a commonwealth government survey, and we were asking for more foreign workers. That was a hard sell. At the same time, the OSHA violations that led to the death and injury of workers, employers who were cheating workers on their paychecks, and outright illegal hiring of ‘tourists’ for construction jobs made a number of senators skeptical of adding more workers. In fact, there is a sentiment on both sides of the aisle that the foreign worker program should not be extended.”

The Obamacare repeal debate also slowed progress. “No legislation was going through the Senate, until health care was resolved,” Sablan explained. “That was resolved on Friday and two days later we got H.R. 339 passed.”

Sablan said that he kept working on the bill, despite these difficulties, because of the local businesses that were hurt when the annual cap on CW permits was met. At an April hearing on H.R. 339 Senator Murkowski particularly focused on the importance of the ban on CW permits for construction workers. “It’s not too difficult to connect the dots here between the increased amount of construction activity, and the increased applications by construction companies for CW permits, to understand why the cap has been hit in the past two years,” Murkowski said.

“On the one hand, it is encouraging to see this level of economic growth and investment interest in the CNMI.… On the other, it is hard not to wonder if the CNMI would be in this situation had the business community taken the transition program seriously when Congress enacted the Consolidated Natural Resources Act back in 2008.”

To further encourage the shift to a U.S. worker-based economy Sablan’s bill increases the fee that employers must pay for each foreign worker from $150 to $200 per year. The funds are handed over to the commonwealth government for U.S. worker training. So far, the commonwealth has received over $9.9 million. According to the Government Accountability Office, between 2010 (when the CW program went into effect) and 2015, the number of U.S. workers in the Marianas labor force went up 1,182. Over the same time, the number of foreign workers went down by 2,185.

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