A panel of CNMI and White House officials sent a report to Congress Tuesday, detailing joint recommendations on how the federal government can help CNMI immigration and balance U.S. national security interests in the western Pacific region.
The recommendations include extending beyond 2019 the transitional CNMI-only worker program the local economy relies upon for its tourism-based economy. Without the extension, the CNMI will have limited access to foreign workers. The CNMI’s local labor pool is so limited it needs foreign workers.
The joint panel also seeks an increase in the annual foreign worker cap to 18,000.
The recommendations also include a pathway to U.S. citizenship for long-term guest workers, and their families.
“This could be done as part of comprehensive immigration reform or given the unique nature of the CNMI and its immigration transition, as part of stand-alone legislation dealing with CNMI-specific immigration issues,” the 43-page report states.
Section 902 of the covenant that established the CNMI’s political union with the United States allows for periodic consultations between the two governments “on all matters affecting the relationship between them.”
Either party can initiate the consultations. In this case, the CNMI initiated the talks to cover the transitional CNMI-only worker program, set to expire in 2019, and proposed military activities on the islands.
Since the covenant was fully implemented in 1986, several Section 902 consultations have been initiated. This is the first to result in a report to the president that has been transmitted to Congress, the joint team said.
The representatives in these discussions are appointed directly by the CNMI governor and the president.
Former President Barack Obama designated U.S. Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Esther Kia'aina as special U.S. representative for the United States, while CNMI Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres is special representative for the commonwealth.
The 902 Consultations Report is the culmination of eight months of official consultations, informal discussions and site visits.
In a statement Wednesday, Guam time, the U.S. Department of the Interior said the report “reflects the views of both the U.S. and the CNMI and concludes with recommendations that both sides agreed would help the CNMI transition to a U.S. workforce and help advance the national security concerns of the U.S. in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.”
On the issues of immigration and labor, the special representatives agreed to recommendations for action to address the need for workers and a stable economy in the CNMI, including:
- Extending the CNMI-only transitional worker program beyond 2019.
- Restoring the executive branch’s authority to extend the program with the Department of Homeland Security as the lead department.
- Raising the cap to 18,000 foreign workers allowed in the CNMI.
- Providing a permanent immigration status for long-term guest workers.
- Considering immigration policies to address regional labor shortages in the CNMI and Guam.
- Extending eligibility to the CNMI for federal workforce development programs.
- Urging Homeland to solicit information from stakeholders and interested parties in the CNMI on what regulatory changes should be made to the program in order to improve and better address workforce needs.
- Endorsing a cooperative working relationship between Homeland and the CNMI.
On the issue of proposed military activities in the CNMI, the special representatives and their teams reviewed the history of military activities in the CNMI, the original military plans for Tinian, and significant Department of Defense projects in recent years.
These include the Guam and CNMI military relocation project, the Mariana Islands training and testing project, Air Force activities and exercise projects, and the CNMI Joint Military Training Project.
The CNMI’s concerns focused on potential inconsistencies between the training project and the CNMI covenant, the technical agreement and the 1983 lease agreement.
The CNMI also raised concerns about potential impact of the the joint military project on the local economy, as well as the need to ensure meaningful opportunities for the CNMI to participate in decisions affecting the islands.
The CNMI also seeks appropriate compensation for military activity on Farallon de Medinilla, which is regularly used by the U.S. military for live-fire training exercises.
“This joint report reflects the strength of the U.S.-CNMI relationship and will provide federal policymakers in the executive branch and ... Congress with a roadmap on how to best address important issues that have a tremendous impact on the economy and overall well-being of the CNMI people,” Kia’aina said.
Torres thanked Obama for allowing the CNMI an opportunity to voice its concerns and have those concerns incorporated into the report's final recommendations.
“This is an important and historic event in our relationship with the federal government and is one that will continue to provide for greater understanding of the critical issues facing the CNMI going forward,” Torres said.
CNMI Delegate Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan said in a statement Wednesday the recommendations made and the policy justifications the report puts forward will be an important addition to ongoing discussions in Congress regarding immigration and labor issues in the CNMI.