Marianas Variety

Last updateThu, 19 Sep 2019 12am

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    Wednesday, September 18, 2019-9:30:28P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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Five-year extension

GOVERNOR Eloy S. Inos sees the five-year extension of the federal immigration transition period as an opportunity to train more local workers while other politicians interviewed by the Variety look at it as a challenge to produce a skilled local workforce.

In separate interviews, former Gov. Juan N. Babauta, his running mate, former Sen. Juan S. Torres, Senate Floor Leader Ray N. Yumul and Rep. Trenton B. Conner said the CNMI has only five years to train U.S. eligible workers for employment in the private sector.

In a statement, Inos said: “This may be our last chance, we cannot allow this opportunity to pass us by; we need to train our residents and get them back into the workforce. This is an opportunity for the CNMI to establish the best and most viable resident workforce in the Pacific.”

Upon receiving the letter from U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez yesterday morning regarding the extension, Press Secretary Angel A. Demapan said the governor met with CNMI Labor Secretary Edith Deleon Guerrero and Commerce Secretary Sixto Igisomar “to begin efforts to prepare and establish a viable resident workforce ahead of the 2019 expiration.”

Inos said “with this 5-year extension, I will take all necessary steps to effectively train and prepare U.S. citizens and other lawful permanent residents to meet the workforce needs of legitimate businesses in the CNMI.”

A local resident, however, said the question has always been: “Are there enough U.S. qualified workers willing to work in a service-oriented private sector? The local population is still small, and no one can force anyone, especially a voter, to work as a waiter or a housekeeper. We now can produce nurses, but what prevents them from moving to Guam or the states where the pay is much higher?”

The office of U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan said U.S. Labor’s decision means that the phase-out of the current foreign worker program in the islands will end in 2019 rather than this year.

Sablan noted that the phase-out has already cut the number of non-U.S. workers in the Northern Marianas from 22,417 in fiscal year 2011 at the start of the transition period to 10,017 in 2013.

Thomas Perez

Babauta said U.S. Labor Secretary Perez’s announcement is a very important development and will, at least for now, ease the uncertainties about having an adequate workforce in the commonwealth.

Like Inos and Sablan, Babauta had asked U.S. Labor to extend the transition period.

Babauta said the one point that needs to be emphasized is that the gradual reduction of guest workers within the next five years will also mean a reduction in the $150 commonwealth-only workers permit fees which fund the training of a local workforce.

Babauta said if this funding source diminishes as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service gradually cuts the number of guest workers here, the CNMI’s ability to produce an adequate local workforce as the stated goal of P.L. 110-229, or the federalization law, will remain problematic.

“It is important that we keep this in mind and communicate it to our federal partners so that we will be able to identify sources of funding through which the federal government can assist us so we can produce a workforce for the economy,” Babauta said.

Asked if he thinks five years is enough, Babauta said it has been five years since the federalization was enacted but the CNMI has not come up with enough local workers to replace the guest workers.

“So we have had more than five years already and now we are basically looking at another five years. We need to act right now, sit down and lay out a plan for this transition to take place because I doubt that there is going to be another five-year extension,” he said.

Sablan earlier said that there won’t be another extension.

Babauta said at the hospital, for example, 130 of the 200 nurses are guest workers.

That means that Northern Marianas College, which is one of the institutions that gets CW fees, will have to graduate 130 from its nursing program, or at least 25 a year during the five-year extension period. And that is only for the Commonwealth Health Center only.

There are private clinics in the islands, as well, that may shut down if their nurses have to leave in five years.

“So it is incumbent upon the leaders of the CNMI to work with U.S. Labor and the U.S. Congress to make sure that we fulfill the goal of P.L. 110-229 which is to train our own local workforce using the CW fees. We have to maximize that and we also have to ask for some accountability on how the CW fees are used and whether we are able to produce enough skilled labor,” Babauta added.

For his part, Torres said in five years “may be doable but it is going to be hard.”

“So we need to work hard on what we are doing now. We need to think where to focus the use of those CW fees,” he added.

The former senators said the CNMI government has to train its local workers for jobs that are most needed; for instance, in the hospital, where 90 percent of the nurses are guest workers.”

Torres said “we have to urge the college to use the money to train more nurses.”

“We begin at that level. We need to determine where CWs are most needed, like in the tourism industry, in hotels. We should train our people there. Let us put our money there.”

Yumul, IR-Saipan, said U.S. Labor’s announcement is welcome news that will allow businesses to move ahead with their plans. But for some job positions, he said five years is not enough to train an adequate number of locals.

“At least we have to show a good faith effort in training our own people,” he said.

Conner, R-Tinian, said the announcement “creates stability for the next five years.” But the fate of businesses now depends on what USCIS will do next. He was referring to the gradual reduction of the number of guest workers over the next five years.

Conner said P.L. 110-229 is supposed to provide the CNMI with as much flexibility as possible to avoid adverse effects on the local economy.

One of the law’s provisions states: “In recognition of the commonwealth’s unique economic circumstances, history and geographical location, it is the intent of the Congress that the commonwealth be given as much flexibility as possible in maintaining existing businesses and other revenue sources, and developing new economic opportunities, consistent with the mandates of this subtitle.”

Conner said USCIS should not prevent businesses in the CNMI from expanding.

In the next five years, he added, “let’s see what we can do within the period to create an adequate local workforce while allowing businesses to get the workers they need.”