Micronesians in Hawaii: Migrant Group Faces Barriers to Equal Opportunity
From Hawaii Advisory Committee to US Commission on Civil Rights March, 2019 (released Aug, 2019)
Under the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) first approved in Public Law 99-239 (1986), and Public Law 99-658 (1994), and later amended in Public Law 108-188 (2003), citizens of the Freely Associated States (FAS) of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau are legal non-immigrants allowed, for indefinite periods of time, to live, work, and study in the United States without a visa. As a result, citizens from Micronesia began migrating to Hawaii.
For the purposes of this report, COFA migrants, also known as qualified non-immigrants, are those FAS citizens who migrated from the Federated States of Micronesia or the Republic of the Marshall Islands during or after 1986, and from the Republic of Palau during or after 1994. In 1996, under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (Welfare Reform Act), COFA migrants living and working legally in the United States under the Compacts were deemed ineligible for most federal public benefits. Hawaii, as a U.S. port of entry in the Pacific, has directly borne the cost of public services related to migration under the Compacts.
In 2003, as part of the Compact Amendments, the U.S. Congress allocated $30 million annually to Hawaii, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa to assist in defraying costs due to increased demands placed on health, educational, social, or public sector services, or infrastructure related to such services due to Compact Impact. In order to disburse the appropriated funds to each affected jurisdiction, the COFA Amendments require a count of COFA migrants residing within the affected jurisdictions no less than every five years. Current allocations are based on a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau estimation put the number of Compact migrants in Hawaii at 14,700 and the allocation for the state at $12.8 million. In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted a new estimation, to update the numbers used in the allocation of Compact Impact funding. Under the current agreement, Compact Impact funding expires in 2023.
COFA allows most citizens of the signatory territories free immigration rights to live and work in the United States. 7 These immigrants, however, are not eligible for many federal services such as Medicaid and other needs-based social services. The State of Hawaii independently meets many of the social, health and education needs of these migrants, placing further strain on an infrastructure already struggling to meet the needs of Hawaiians already living in the State.
The Government Accountability Office estimated that the annual cost to Hawaii for the years 1996-2000 was $86 million, mainly in un-reimbursed health care and educational costs. In 2011, the State estimated the provision of services to COFA migrants now likely exceeds $100 million annually.
COFA migrants are disproportionately homeless, unemployed, and lacking healthcare. This, coupled with a general lack of language access serves to further fuel discrimination against this group, affecting their ability to acquire decent housing, obtain employment, and receive government services that they are legally entitled to receive. The Committee heard testimony revealing the social and institutional racism and discrimination endured by the COFA migrants. While much of it is outside of the scope of federal protection, there is ample room for federal and state intervention to mitigate the barriers to equal opportunity this migrant group faces.
The legal framework in the United States protects lawful residents from a denial of equal access to official benefits and services. The federal government and the state of Hawaii have obligations to deliver social service support to this migrant group, lawfully residing in the United States. As evidenced by the table on page, numerous pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress to mitigate the hardship on both the migrant community and the social service infrastructure in Hawaii. To date, the only piece of legislation that has been passed into law is a 2018 law extending the right to the COFA migrants to obtain a driver’s license.
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