By Caitlin Mitchell
HONOLULU (HONOLULU CIVIL BEAT) —A major deadline to preserve and strengthen key Pacific relationships is approaching: the United States is due to renegotiate agreements with Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau as part of U.S efforts to counter China in the Pacific. The United States has a vested interest in maintaining defense access in the region. It also has a moral imperative to address the economic and social conditions that this partnership has created in the islands.
Near the end of World War II, the United States wrested control of Micronesia, the Marshals and Palau from Japan. The United States has remained in “free association” with the now-independent nations of the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands since 1986, and the Republic of Palau since 1994. These relationships are governed by the Compacts of Free Association, some provisions of which expire in 2023.
These compacts provide U.S grants for health care and education and afford the United States exclusive military rights in the islands. They also allow for free movement between the U.S and the islands, meaning citizens of these three COFA nations can enter the United States without a visa, and live and work indefinitely as legal permanent residents.
However, the unresolved legacy of nuclear testing and growing threat of climate change to the islands have displaced their citizens to other parts of the region and the United States. In the 1940s and 1950s, some Marshallese were forcibly relocated for U.S nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll. Others were exposed to radioactive fallout after testing.
Today, citizens of these islands migrate to the United States for a diverse range of reasons, including jobs, higher education, and access to specialized health care. Direct effects of climate change — including more frequent typhoons, depletion of fishing stocks, and tidal flooding — have spurred some to move. Rising sea levels are likely to drive further displacement as conditions worsen.
Citizens of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau now live, work, and pay taxes in nearly every state and territory, yet they are uniquely ineligible for key federal programs. They serve in the U.S military at greater per capita rates than U.S citizens and have become permanent and essential fixtures in their American communities.
They support a significant portion of the poultry-processing operation in Arkansas, the tourism and service industries in Hawaii and Guam, and warehousing and caregiving roles in the Pacific Northwest.
No path to Citizenship
Despite their national and personal sacrifices and contributions to U.S defense, economic, and cultural interests, these populations have no path to citizenship. They also face significant challenges in accessing some critical safety net programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps—and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, both of which are available to other legal permanent residents in the United States.
There is an unprecedented, if limited opportunity for the U.S government to renegotiate the compacts smartly. President Joe Biden’s administration can demonstrate its commitment to the region by including meaningful grant increases to address educational, health, and climate impacts in the islands in the new compacts. This would represent an acknowledgment of the depth of the relationships, which is vital at a time when China is courting Pacific Island nations. The Marshall Islands is home to one of the only U.S military, intelligence, and aerospace footholds in the region.
A recent U.S Institute of Peace Report warned that Beijing sees Pacific Island nations as a low-investment, high-reward opportunity to increase its foothold. While the United States allows the deadline to renegotiate the compacts to approach, China seeks to expand its geographic dominance in the Pacific and add more nations to its coalition of countries opposing Taiwan.
Yet renegotiations remain at a near standstill. The Marshall Islands called off a recent negotiating session when Washington did not respond to a written proposal regarding the lingering effects of nuclear testing.
Additionally, Congress should address the barriers that Micronesians face in the United States by passing the bipartisan Compact Impact Fairness Act. The legislation would grant compact citizens the same access to SNAP, TANF, federal financial aid, and other public benefits as other legal permanent residents.
However, the bill has languished at the subcommittee level for more than a year. Micronesian populations — they include Marshallese, Palauns, Chuukese, Kosraens, Yapese and Pohnpeians in the United States — continue to struggle with access to public benefits. They either go without essential services, or states and territories fill the gap.
The Compacts of Free Association are federal obligations and invaluable partnerships. There has never been a better time for the U.S government to start treating them as such. Renegotiating the compacts with meaningful grant increases and addressing barriers that their populations face in the United States will bring the relationships into the 21st century, and hopefully far beyond….PACNEWS