Kilili to push passage of NMI bill in US House

U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan on Wednesday said he will push for the passage of S.2325 or the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Authored by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the bill was passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate on April 23, and was received by the U.S. House where it is now “held at the desk.”  Kilili said this means that the House can act on it “at any time.”

The bill proposes to extend the federal CW program by 10 years after Dec. 2019, and increase the CW cap to 13,000. The cap will then gradually be reduced annually.

Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan

Speaking before members of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Kilili echoed Murkowski’s statement that once the bill is passed by the U.S. House, it is likely that President Donald Trump will sign it into law.

On Friday last week, Kilili said a member of the House majority assured him that the House will act on S.2325 once members return to the nation’s capital and convene next week.

“I know every day is precious to those of you who depend on CW workers and who may already have had applications for fiscal year 2019 rejected,” Kilili said. “Once the U.S. Workforce Act is signed into law, you will have an opportunity to reapply.”

He said “instead of 4,999 CW permits — the number that the Trump administration decided on — there will be 13,000 permits available.”

Initially, there were calls for 15,000 or 18,000 CW permits, but Kilili said 13,000 “should be enough to keep our economy growing — particularly because the movers behind the large construction projects are finally starting to understand how to get H2 visas and not use up the CW permits which are so precious to so many of your businesses.”

He added, “I will say, too, that we are fortunate to have 13,000 permits as the reset number for the CW program. In fact, it was not until the afternoon of Jan. 18 — the day before Senator Murkowski and I introduced the U.S. Workforce Act in the Senate and the House — that I was able to negotiate the number up from 12,000 to 13,000.”

Kilili explained to the business community how the bill made its way through the U.S. Senate.

“There were many similar ‘nail-biting’ moments in the process of negotiating the U.S. Workforce Act. Of course, we started from zero: no extension, no more CW workers after 2019. Chairwoman Murkowski had insisted on taking away the authority of the U.S. secretary of Labor to extend the CW program beyond 2019 when we got the five-year extension passed in 2014,” Kilili said.

Murkowski, he added, would only agree to the 2014 extension in return for taking away the ability of the U.S. secretary of Labor to extend the CW program after 2019.

The 2014 extension included the bar on claims of asylum, which is what makes parole-based tourism from China possible, Kilili said

“That was a tough choice. But I chose five more years of Chinese tourism. So I rolled the dice on getting the CW program extended by Congress. I had to compromise,” he said.

“We are not quite there yet. But I think I made the right choice in 2014. In fiscal year 2017, we had 229,389 Chinese tourist arrivals. Without the extension of the bar on claims of asylum that I got in 2014 the only way Chinese tourists would be coming to the Marianas would be with B visas. And with a B visa a Chinese tourist can go to Hawaii, California, or anywhere else in the United States. With parole they can only come here. So, I think I made the right choice for the Marianas by protecting parole,” he added.

Another critically important decision, he said, was to request that the U.S. Government Accountability Office look into CNMI workforce issues.

In 2016, Kilili said he, Murkowski and Sen. Maria  Cantwell, D-Wash., jointly asked the GAO to stretch the scope of its regular report to Congress on the minimum wage to include an analysis of how U.S. immigration law affected the Marianas economy.

That GAO report, which came out in May 2017, concluded that without foreign labor the Marianas economy would shrink by 26 to 62 percent.

Kilili said the report changed some minds, but not about extending the CW program past 2019. “No, when the report came out in May 2017, it was only enough to convince certain members of Congress that maybe it would be okay to give the Marianas a few more workers in 2017.”

That is how he got H.R. 339 or the Northern Marianas Economic Expansion Act passed by Congress and signed into law in Aug. 2017, he said.

“And it was that shift in focus from, ‘How many foreign workers do we need?’ to ‘How many U.S. workers can we find and train to fill the needs of the Marianas economy?’ — that helped to break the logjam over extending the CW program past 2019.  People who had been saying, ‘No extension, no way’— now  agreed to sit down and talk about the economic realities of the Marianas,” he said.

In Sept. 2017, he added,  a bicameral, bipartisan working group was formed.  Two months later, the Marianas congressional office wrote the first working draft of the U.S. Workforce Act. Two months after that, he and Senator Murkowski introduced the bill.

“Even though we both introduced the bill in the House and the Senate, our strategy from the first days of the working group in September was to make this a Republican bill and pass it in the Senate first,” he said.

There is also a House version of the bill that he authored, but it was part of the strategy to make the NMI Workforce Act a Republican bill “because we have a Republican Congress and we have a Republican president,” he added.

Kilili said they started in the Senate, because long experience in Congress has taught him that it’s easier to pass a Senate bill in the House than the other way around.

He said he spent all morning and a good portion of the afternoon receiving calls from U.S. Senate Democrats.  “They all wanted to know one thing. Do I support this bill? And I said yes,”

 So they agreed to support it, too, he added.

Also having learned from experience, Kilili said it does not matter whose name is on the bill. “What matters is getting what you want enacted into law. Today, I think we are close to getting what we want enacted into law,” he added.

Getting the bill passed in the U.S. House is what he will be working on next week, Kilili said.

Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios expressed the hope that the bill will become law soon. She also encouraged members of the business community to train and hire more U.S. qualified workers.

 “Please continue doing what we have been doing,” she added.

Source: Marianas Variety :

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