CNMI Visa Program

ECONOMIC IMPACTS FROM COMMONWEALTH-ONLY WORKER PROGRAM IN THE NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS

STATEMENT OF ESTHER P. KIA’AINA
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR INSULAR AREAS
DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
BEFORE THE
U.S. HOUSE SUBCOMMITTEE ON INDIAN, INSULAR AND ALASKA NATIVE AFFAIRS OVERSIGHT HEARING ON 
ECONOMIC IMPACTS FROM COMMONWEALTH-ONLY WORKER PROGRAM IN THE NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS

SEPTEMBER 13, 2016 

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs, we appreciate the opportunity to provide a statement on the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands-Only Transitional Worker (CW) Program.

CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Visa Program

The Covenant to Establish the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) in Political Union with the United States of America (Covenant) was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976 and took effect in 1986.  Through the Covenant, the CNMI government received jurisdiction and control over immigration (subject to the legislative authority of the U.S. Congress) and subsequently allowed an influx of foreign contract workers into the territory.  By the year 2000, 58 percent of the CNMI's population was born in a foreign country, illustrating the heavy reliance of the CNMI economy on foreign workers.

In 2008, Public Law 110-229, the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 (CNRA), extended Federal immigration law to the CNMI beginning in November 2009.  In addition, the CNRA provided for a transition period through December 31, 2014, during which the CNMI’s foreign worker permit program would be phased out in favor of employment of U.S. work-authorized employees under the Immigration and Nationality Act and other Federal immigration laws.  As part of the transition program, the CNRA established the CW visa program to provide workers necessary to sustain the CNMI economy.

On June 3, 2014, the U.S. Secretary of Labor exercised the authority provided him under the CNRA to extend the CW program for five years, through December 31, 2019, because of an “insufficient number of U.S. workers to meet CNMI businesses’ current needs.”  Following that decision, Congress extended the entire transition period through that same date of December 31, 2019, and also removed the authority of the U.S. Secretary of Labor to further extend the CW program beyond that date.  

Covenant Section 902 Consultations

Illustrating the importance of the approaching expiration of the CW program, CNMI Governor Ralph Torres and his predecessor, the late Governor Eloy Inos, requested President Obama initiate the Covenant’s Section 902 Consultation process to discuss two issues: (1) the expiration of the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program in 2019; and (2) the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) proposed military activities in the CNMI.

Section 902 of the Covenant established a formal consultative process through which the United States and the CNMI may discuss issues affecting their relationship.  The process calls for the appointment of special representatives for each government to meet, consider these issues in good faith, and develop a report and recommendations.

On May 19, 2016, I was designated the U.S. Special Representative by President Obama.  Governor Torres was designated the CNMI’s Special Representative.  The U.S. team is composed of officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior, DOD and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (including both DHS at the Departmental level and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the immigration services agency within DHS). 

The first meeting was held at the White House on June 6th, followed by site visits to Saipan and Tinian in the CNMI in mid-June.  These visits by the U.S. team were informative and critical in learning firsthand the economic challenges facing the people, private industry, and government of the CNMI.  A second meeting took place in Hawaii in August.  

Through the meetings and site visits, the CNMI has been able to highlight the unique economic circumstances facing the territory. Although part of the objective of the 902 Consultations is to discuss and recommend long-term resolutions, the meetings have already proven valuable in the short-term.  Since the 902 Consultations began in June, several actions have been taken, laying the groundwork for recommendations through the 902 Consultations process.  

These actions include DHS’s announcement that the CW cap would be reduced by just one, from 12,999 for FY 2016 to 12,998 for FY 2017. This is the smallest reduction DHS could make, an adjustment that will give CNMI breathing room to plan its transition under U.S. immigration law and the expiration of the CW visa program.

In addition, our Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) recently issued a $200,000 technical assistance grant to the CNMI Department of Labor to create a team of labor certification technicians and a statistician to help collect, compile and analyze crucial data on the CW program.  The funding also helps the CNMI to develop a strategic plan to provide real-time data on the most in-demand job fields and other valuable information needed by decision-makers.  This information is needed to fill data gaps and strengthen capacity of the CNMI government to train the workers that are most needed during this transition period.  

In addition to these actions, the 902 process is still ongoing.  A great deal of work remains ahead for the United States and CNMI teams in developing recommendations to address the longer-term immigration and labor issues facing the CNMI, including the expiration of the CW program in 2019. We are aiming to produce a report and recommendations by the end of the Administration.

USCIS, as well as the broader DHS, has been a critical partner in the 902 Consultations.  Their willingness to listen, participate, and collaborate has helped lay a strong foundation for the work ahead.  Outside the 902 Consultations process, USCIS’ policies, as the administrator of the CW program, and its on-the-ground presence in Saipan will undoubtedly affect the CNMI’s economy and people for years to come.  

I look forward to continuing to work with USCIS, DHS and Governor Torres of the CNMI, both within the 902 process and beyond.