Governor, Kilili discuss workforce problems; NMI to hold 902 talks with feds

GOVERNOR Ralph DLG Torres and U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan met on Monday to discuss the islands’ worsening workforce problems due to the exclusion this year of the Philippines from the H-2B visa program.

At the governor’s request, the CNMI will hold Section 902 consultations with the federal government later this week to discuss matters related to immigration and the islands’ economic viability.

Press Secretary Kevin Bautista said Torres and Kilili  talked about the governor’s letter urging the congressman to introduce legislation that would reinstate the policy allowing the hiring of nonresident construction workers through the CW-1 program.

The governor said the prohibition of construction workers within the CW-1 program “has become a detrimental bottleneck preventing residents from finding suitable labor to reconstruct their lives.”

Torres added, “What was true two years ago is even more true today — the CNMI does not have the suitable number of construction laborers necessary to help build a resilient community. While I understand that the impetus behind the prohibition of construction workers was the assumption that there would be available opportunities to source construction labor through the H-2B visa classification, this is not the case now.”

Torres also asked Kilili to “consider including into the next disaster spending appropriation for the CNMI [language] that would mirror the provision contained in U.S. P.L. 115-232, Section 1945, allowing for H-2B workers to be granted admission into the CNMI to perform labor in the performance of contracts or sub-contacts for construction, repairs, renovations, or facility services that is connected or associated with Presidential Disaster Declaration for a period of five years following the declaration.”

In an email to Variety, Kilili said the governor’s letter “discusses complex, immigration issues that require serious thought before writing a response.”

Kilili added,  “Some of what was brought up in the letter may be best addressed in greater detail at the Feb. 27, 2019 [congressional] hearing.”

In his e-newsletter, Kilili said the hearing will focus on his bill, H.R. 560,  which would allow permanent status in the Marianas for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, caregivers, and other groups who had been granted humanitarian parole by the Obama administration.

“Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump ordered parole would only be used on a case-by-case basis, not for categories of people. As a result, about 1,500 people will have to leave the Marianas by June 29,” Kilili said.

He said the bill would  provide protection for these individuals, as well as for long-term workers and investors.

“The hearing will also look at the Trump administration’s decision not to allow workers from the Philippines to enter the U.S. on H visas,” Kilili said.  “My Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act, Public Law 115-218, relies on unlimited H visa workers for the Marianas to fill in the gaps as the number of CW permits decreases over the next 10 years. And now, with recovery work underway, the Marianas is especially in need of H visa workers.”

In his letter to Kilili, the governor said it is also “critical for the CNMI government or a regional labor entity, such as those currently present in Guam, to be the responsible party in the issuance of Foreign Labor Certification.”

As is currently the practice in Guam, the governor said  a local certification authority will be responsible to work alongside Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives “to define eligibility requirements and processes for petitioning foreign labor in construction occupations related to the repair and recovery for our islands.”

Torres said it is necessary to ensure that CNMI residents have the skilled laborers to repair and rebuild homes that are more resilient.

“I ask that you work with your Democratic and Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives to see that the needs of our people recovering from Typhoon Yutu continue to be met,” the governor said in his letter to Kilili.

Meetings in DC

The governor will be in Washington, D.C. for the next two weeks for a series of meetings with White House officials, members of the U.S. Congress, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of the Interior- Office of Insular Affairs, and the Department of Defense. He will also attend the National Governors Association’s 111th Annual Winter Meeting.

Torres said his request for a Section 902 consultations with the federal government has been granted by the Trump administration.

“My administration has been hard at work preparing the CNMI’s case to the federal government in order to protect our economic viability and enhance our ability to deliver essential public services for our community. In 2016, during our last Section 902 consultations, we established the necessary policy framework for immigration and U.S. workforce development in the CNMI with our federal partners. We look forward to building on this as we continue our talks with the White House,” the governor said.

On Tuesday, Feb. 26, at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Torres and other territorial governors will testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources which will conduct a hearing on the state of U.S. territories.

On Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the invitation of Congressman Kilili, the governor will testify before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources in a hearing on H.R. 560, the Northern Mariana Islands Residents Relief Act, as well as the impact of delisting the Philippines from the H-2B visa program.

In addition, the governor is scheduled to meet with officials at the Department of Defense later that afternoon.