The town with the largest overseas community of Marshallese in the world may be surprising: Springdale, Arkansas, has around 15,000 Marshallese immigrants. In contrast, the Marshall Islands themselves have a population of around 53,000, only about three times that number. This immigration has made a mark on Springdale; the town features 30 Marshallese churches, a Marshallese radio station, and even a consulate. This is one of only two consulates the country has in the United States, with the other in Honolulu. Similarly, Springdale has one of only two Marshallese MDs in the United States serving the community.
The ties between Arkansas and the Marshall Islands began with one man immigrating there in 1986, and are facilitated to this day by the Compact of Free Association (COFA) between the two countries that allows Marshallese to live and work in the United States without a visa. In the ensuing decades, the Marshallese population grew rapidly but lacked official recognition and useful census data. On May 23, 2019, however, this changed. Senators John Boozman (R-AR) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) passed a resolution in the Senate that commends the heritage of the Marshall Islands and its friendship with the United States, and also calls for improved census data on Marshallese communities in the United States. Prior to the resolution’s passage, both senators also met with Marshallese President Dr. Hilda C. Heine.
Following this resolution, The Department of the Interior set aside a budget of $217,594 on the week of June 10, 2019, to support the Marshallese Education Initiative for the Marshallese Resource and Educational Center in Springdale. This center provides both direct services and advising to Marshallese on topics ranging from finances to domestic abuse to housing. This federal level support stemming from Arkansas senators represents a vital increase in visibility for the Marshallese that has long been lacking.
The recognition and funding will serve to further highlight the friendship between the United States and the Marshall Islands. This close relationship is visible in the level of financial assistance that the United States provides. Direct US aid accounted for 61.3% of the Marshall Islands’ $137.4 million budget in 2010. And more recently, the United States has accounted for 100% of remittances to the Marshall Islands, which in total contribute 13% of the GDP. When combined, direct aid and remittances form a large part of the lifeblood of the island country. In return, Marshallese serve in the US Army at higher rates than the populations of any US state. Recognizing Marshallese contributions and their importance in the United States is a step toward even tighter relations.
Julia Wargo is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a second-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies studying Conflict Management and International Economics.