Monday, March 31, 2008
By By Giff Johnson
MAJURO — American states are footing a bill for hundreds of millions of dollars for services to migrants from U.S.-affiliated islands in the Pacific — a tab that the federal government is supposed to pick up, but has failed to, a Hawaii state senator told Marshall Islands and U.S. officials in Majuro at the weekend.
Nearly one-third of the 70,000 Marshall Islanders and about 25 percent of the 107,000 Micronesians now live in America, escaping stagnant economies, dismal public schools and limited health care by using visa-free entry privileges under a Compact of Free Association to move to locations as diverse as Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii to rural northwest Arkansas. The increasing out-migration to America — though the actual numbers remain small on a global scale — have sparked increasing debate in the U.S. about how to pay for services provided to newly arrived islanders.
"The federal government has not honored the Compact of Free Association," said Hawaii state Sen. Kalani English at an oversight hearing in Majuro held by U.S. House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Asia, Pacific and Global Environment Chairman Eni Faleomavaega, D-American Samoa. "Even though they are supposed to be treated as U.S. citizens, federal law says 'Oh no,' so states are forced to pick up the burden. Our estimate is it costs $91 million a year to provide services to all freely associated states, or FAS, citizens in Hawaii and we only get back $10 million from the federal government."
Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony deBrum complained that different states in the U.S. have different interpretations of islanders' status, causing hardships to accessing jobs and health care. In some states, islanders have full access to federal services, including job training, food stamps, low cost housing and others. "In other states, it is restricted," deBrum said. "There is discrimination against Marshallese, especially where there are large populations such as Arkansas." In some places, "We're treated worse than aliens," he added.
"Given the no-growth scenario projected (in the Federated States of Micronesia), it is reasonable to assume that large numbers of Micronesians will continue to emigrate in search of jobs, and perhaps also to afford their families a standard of health care and education that they will not easily find at home because of the increased financial pressure on government services," said Fr. Francis Hezel, S.J., director of the Micronesian Seminar research institute in Pohnpei, in a recently published paper.
The U.S. Congress capped at $30 million what it calls "Compact Impact" aid provided to just three islands, Guam, Hawaii and the Northern Marianas.
But English believes that other states will soon begin demanding reimbursement from this limited fund.
"The Guam Legislature has just passed a resolution asking the U.S. government to reimburse it for $400 million (for services to FAS citizens)," English said. "Hawaii's congressional delegation is proposing to lift the $30 million cap and reinstate eligibility for federal programs. It will be very helpful for the states for the federal government to fully implement the treaty. Hawaii is a willing partner but we ask the U.S. federal government to pay its share of the costs."
U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Clyde Bishop told the hearing that no other countries in the world have the same visa-free access to the U.S. as these U.S.-affiliated islands that were formerly governed as a United Nations Trust Territory by the U.S. from World War II.
"If people from the freely associated states enter the U.S. under the Compact and are placed in a situation of uncomfortable challenges, it behooves both governments to look at it," Bishop said. "The U.S. government can be more active with the states, and the Marshall Islands can invest in screening and ensuring that Marshallese are fully aware of their options. By working together we can improve the situation."
U.S. states are particularly complaining about the high costs of treating contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections and Hansen's disease (leprosy). Recently, Arkansas Deputy State Health Officer Dr. Joe Bates testified to the state legislature that between 2000 and 2005, Northwest Arkansas had nine cases of congenital syphilis, six of which involved Marshall Islanders; 38 people with infectious syphilis, 21 of whom were Marshall Islanders; and eight cases of leprosy, all among Marshall Islanders.
"Hawaii had a budget surplus the last few years, but now it's disappeared," English said. "The cost to deliver medical services for TB, sexually transmitted infections, and Hansen's disease might be cheaper (by sending) medical teams to the Marshall Islands to do screening (instead of treating people in Hawaii)."
DeBrum, who was involved in negotiation of the first Compact of Free Association in the early 1980s that established the visa-free immigration status, said the original intent of the provision acknowledged the economies of the freely associated states could not provide jobs to their growing populations and that educational opportunities and access to full health care were extremely limited. "U.S. access was provided to make up for that shortfall," deBrum said, calling the visa-free status a "safety valve" for the islands. "But we're now faced with rules that stand in the way of enjoyment of these full privileges."
Congressman Faleomavaega said it was clear that there was no appreciation of this on the U.S. side. He recommended that the immigration status of freely associated state citizens be changed to that of islanders from American Samoa.
"American Samoa is the only insular area where the people are not U.S. citizens," Faleomavaega said. "They are classified as OU.S. nationals' and receive all the benefits of U.S. citizens. Would classification of U.S. national help (the problems faced by freely associated state citizens in the U.S.)?" he asked.
While deBrum said the idea of Marshall Islanders being U.S. nationals "flies in the face of free association" and raised sovereignty issues, English said it was essential to get the U.S. government to define the status of migrating islanders from U.S.-affiliated islands.
"What (Congressman) Eni said is important," English said. "We don't have a definition of what a freely associated state citizen is entitled to."
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