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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center

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Lawmakers Seek Extension To Keep Workers In CNMI
Sablan: ‘fragile’ economy requires access to foreign workers

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Feb. 1, 2013) – With less than two years before the end of the federalization transition period on Dec. 31, 2014, the Fitial administration, Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP), the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, and Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands lawmakers are poised to ask the U.S. Labor Secretary to extend it by five more years or up to 2019.

If the transitional Commonwealth-only worker program is not extended, more than 12,000 skilled and professional nonresident workers with CW-1 status will have to exit the CNMI.

Sablan said his letter to the U.S. Labor secretary will be sent "in the not so distant future."

He said the still "fragile" state of the CNMI economy needs continued access to skilled guest workers while the CNMI should work toward employing all eligible U.S. workers and continue to train or prepare the others.

Richard Pierce, executive director of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, separately said yesterday there is no question that the CNMI economy needs a five-year extension of the transition period, especially with tourism starting to pick up.

"We're pushing for a five-year extension and everybody seems to be on the same page on this," he said. "There has to be a decision made as soon as possible so businesses can plan ahead."

The government and private sector said that losing access to these skilled foreign workers will harm the tourism-based economy in a major way. These nonresident workers, many of them working legally in the CNMI for more than five years, include nurses, accountants, engineers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, house workers, and hotel and restaurant employees.

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial has also been repeatedly saying that he wants a five-year extension of the transition period.

Press secretary Angel Demapan confirmed yesterday that the administration is still seeking such an extension.

The CNMI's request will also come at a time when the Obama administration and U.S. Congress members are pushing for national immigration reform that includes giving pathway to citizenship to over 11 million undocumented aliens in the U.S. mainland.

Sablan reiterated that he is working with his colleagues in Congress and the Obama administration to ensure that the CNMI is included in any national immigration reform legislation.

He is also currently working on a broader version of his H.R. 1466 to include other groups of long-term nonresidents that will be eligible for a CNMI resident status, or pathway to U.S. citizenship.

Sablan said if the CNMI is left out in this national immigration reform, it will hurt the chances of long-term legal nonresident workers here, among other things.

The CNMI Legislature is also poised to introduce legislation supporting an extension of the transition period.

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