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What’s at Stake for COFA Migrants in the United States as COFA Negotiations Continue

The Pacific Asia

The United States is in a race against time to renew the Compact of Free Association with three Pacific Island countries: the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the Republic of Palau. The Compacts of Free Association (COFA), which exchange exclusive military access on the islands for economic assistance and the right to live and work in the United States without a visa, are set to expire in late 2023 for the FSM and RMI and 2024 for Palau. Renewing these compacts has become a national priority, especially as the United States seeks to maintain its strong allies as it competes with China in the region.

All parties have made progress in the negotiations with preliminary Memorandums of Understanding with the FSM, RMI, and Palau in January. These partial agreements centered on economic assistance and grants to the Freely Associated States (FAS) and United States security engagement. Despite this, a key area not yet settled in the negotiations for any of the FAS are the issues surrounding COFA migrants.

The COFA migrant population in the United States is estimated to be 94,000 with a large proportion in Guam and Hawai'i, but also a significant population in the continental United States in states like Washington, Arkansas, Oregon and California. While able to benefit from easy access to the United States labor market, these migrants also face numerous challenges living in the United States, often due to their special “non-immigrant status.” The Marshallese Educational Initiative (MEI), an Arkansas-based non-profit promoting Marshallese awareness, sat down with the East-West Center Young Professional Alec Weiker to discuss the Marshallese situation in the United States.

Until 2020, these migrants were not eligible for Medicaid programs due to rule changes written into a 1996 law. While technically eligible now due to a 2020 law change, beyond the health impact of almost 25 years without access to the program, many migrants are still facing issues signing up for Medicaid, both because of poor infrastructure and inconsistent state compliance. FAS citizens in the United States have also had similar issues when it comes to accessing full-term Real ID licenses and commercial drivers licenses, as well as federal programs including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and federally-subsidized student loans where migrant eligibility is highly inconsistent depending on the state.

MEI described the government’s obligation to provide full federal benefits to the Marshallese in the United States as directly linked to their nuclear legacy on the islands. Unlike the other two COFA states, the Marshall Islands was the site of significant nuclear testing during the Cold War. The 67 nuclear weapons tests led to environmental degradation, chronic health issues and the displacement of many islanders that continues to this day. In Arkansas, where many Marshallese reside, these effects are still felt with disproportionate levels of chronic disease, coupled with a high Pacific Islander poverty rate of 28.4% in 2021. “The testing that took place in the Marshall Islands propelled the United States as a superpower,” Dr. April Brown, MEI co-founder and COO, said, “We always want to thank the military for their service, and I think we need to be thanking the Marshallese people for their sacrifice as well.”

Another question that will arise in the COFA negotiations is compact impact funds, which are slated to expire in 2023. These funds, consisting of $30 million annually since 2003, are provided to states and territories with high COFA migrant populations — including Hawai'i, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and American Samoa — to help them cope with increased demand for public services such as healthcare or education. These funds, however, may not be enough: according to a Government Accountability Office report, costs associated with COFA migrants from the fiscal years 2004-2018 period added up to $3.2 billion in Hawai'i, Guam and the CNMI, while also only receiving $509.3 million in grants from 2004-2019.

Despite similar costs, states with large COFA migrant populations in the continental United States such as Arkansas receive no compact impact grants at all. Brown tied this issue to low political prioritization of the Marshallese community: “It is widely understood that the highest concentration of Marshallese resides in Arkansas, yet to my knowledge the state has never requested Compact Impact funds. This is a mystery to us.”

It is important to note, however, that despite the costs, COFA migrants do make significant contributions to their states and territories — Hawai'i received $36.6 million in tax revenue from FAS citizens in 2017.

Beyond improving access to federal programs and increasing COFA impact funding, MEI hopes the government will begin to include them in the negotiation process. “We still don’t know what’s in the MOU,” Benetick Kabua Maddison, the executive director, said, “I wish the diaspora community had a say in these negotiations.”

Alec Weiker is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a fourth-year undergraduate at Georgetown University studying International Relations with a double focus on the Pacific and National Identity.