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  • By Pacific island Times News Staff

CNMI workforce bill awaiting president's signature

Gov Ralph  Torres

Gregorio Sablan '

The Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act, which would extend the CNMI’s Commonwealth-Only Traditional Worker or CW program, is now one step closer to becoming a law.

The U.S. Senate passed H.R. 5956 on Thursday, June 29. The House passed the bill on June 5. It will now go to the White House for the president’s signature.

“It has been a long and uncertain legislative road to bring us to this moment. Now, there is just one last step to take, obtaining the President’s signature,” Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan announced Friday. “I have briefed the White House to expect the legislation. Given its critical importance to the Marianas economy and the bipartisan support for the measure, I do not anticipate the President will object.”

CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres said after several days of meetings with federal officials at the White House, he received assurance that the President will sign the bill within 10 days. “I want to thank Chairman Murkowski and Chairman Bishop and their staff for their work on this bill and getting it through Congress. We are almost there, and I sincerely thank our entire community for working with us,” Torres said.

“This will always be about advocating for the people in our villages who are actively trying to find a job in our growing economy, our small local businesses that have to make difficult choices, and families and friends that have been affected already,” the governor said. “This bill will address our community’s concerns by ensuring that there is effective wage protection for U.S. workers, an acknowledgement of our long-term guest workers, additional time to allow for the construction and progress of our islands to continue, and stronger safeguards against bad actors in our economy.”

Torres, who is seeking reelection, said, his administration, will continue to make sure that every able-bodied and willing local worker on island has access to a job in order to be self-sufficient. “We will continue to work towards saving our economy because it provides more opportunities for everyone to succeed as it grows,” Torres said.

The U.S. Workforce Act assures the Marianas economy will have access to foreign labor for ten more years, but also adds new protections for local U.S. workers and for local businesses. The Act resets the number of Marianas-only CW visas to 13,000 beginning in fiscal year 2019—an increase of 8,001 over the number set by the Trump administration—provides unlimited H visas for construction and other temporary workers.

It also continues the bar on claims of asylum in the Marianas, without which there would be no parole for Chinese tourists, who make up about 45 percent of all arrivals.Employers will only be able to apply for a permit for a foreign worker if the U.S. Department of Labor certifies that no U.S. worker is willing, able, and available to fill the job.

Employers will be prevented from paying below-average wages to foreign workers and they will have to report to U.S. Labor regularly to show that terms and conditions of employment are being met.

This is the second time that Sablan has been able to extend the Marianas immigration transition period. In 2014, when the transition period was schedule to end, he added five years, continuing the transition to 2019 in U.S. Public Law 113-235.Sablan wrote the U.S. Workforce Act, together with Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and a working group of congressional offices over more than a year of negotiation.

Sablan incorporated ideas from many hours of listening sessions with his constituents and policies from his previous immigration legislation. His bill also benefited from his decade of experience helping individuals solve problems created by the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, U.S. Public Law 110-229, which put the Marianas under control of federal immigration.

“Another important member of the working group was House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop,” Sablan explained. “His partnership especially came into play when our original bill passed the Senate, but with amendments that created parliamentary problems on the House side.“Bishop and I reintroduced the Senate-passed language in the House and his clout as a Chairman brought it quickly to the floor for a vote. I am very grateful to the Chairman for his prompt action, as I am grateful to everyone who helped us get to the point where legislation has now passed Congress.

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