Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i

Marshalls protest, cite compact terms

By Giff Johnson
MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, May 23, 2011) – United States congressional leaders want to restrict the flow of Micronesians coming to the United States because they say the cost of providing social services to the thousands of islanders who have migrated has made the open door policy unsustainable.

In a May 12 letter obtained Friday, nine members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, including the chairman of a key oversight committee for the islands, directed U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar to reach agreement with island governments to set up screening procedures to limit the number of incoming islanders from Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau who are likely to become “public charges” in the United States. This is the first time since “Compacts of Free Association” were approved in 1986 and renewed in 2003 that U.S. officials have sought to restrict unfettered flow of islanders into the U.S.

Marshall Islands Foreign Minister John Silk expressed his concern at the move, saying the Marshall Islands “will object to any system that imposes a de facto visa requirement on our citizens in the U.S.

That could violate both the letter and spirit of the Compact.” These western Pacific nations were the focus of intense fighting between Japanese and American forces during World War II, and then administered by the United States as a United Nations Trust Territory after the war until 1986.

The U.S. used the Marshall Islands to test 67 nuclear weapons from 1946 to 1958, and operates an important missile testing base in the country.

The U.S. Congress letter was issued two days after an agreement was signed by Marshall Islands landowners cementing use of the Kwajalein missile testing range by the U.S. Defense Department through 2066. It calls on State and Interior to take grant funding currently designated for health and education development in these western Pacific nations and use a portion to educate islanders bound for America about their responsibilities in the U.S. under the visa-free agreement, and to fund dialysis treatment in the islands to reduce costs of health care for increasing numbers of islanders seeking treatment in America.

Silk expressed concern that diverting already diminishing U.S. grant funding to the areas suggested by the congressional leaders “could undermine our efforts to improve health and education outcomes, which are the stated goals in the Compact.”

“The Marshall Islands “is fully committed to the Compact, and we are always willing to work on problems that arise and persevere in our efforts to maintain our special and unique relationship.”

In 1986, the U.S. and the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia, and later Palau, approved compacts that allow visa-free access to the U.S. for islanders to study, work and live.

In recent years, as economic conditions have deteriorated in the islands, many have left to the U.S. and Guam. About 56,000 people live in Marshall Islands, 110,000 in Micronesia and 18,000 in Palau.

Estimates of Micronesians and Marshall Islanders living in the U.S. range from 30,000 to 40,000.

Earlier this year, in response to U.S. congressional concern about the cost of providing services to people from the islands, the U.S. Government Accountability Office launched a study of the situation.

In 2009, U.S. Congress officials “stated the belief that the policy of allowing freely associated state citizens to enter the U.S. for work, study, and residence is sound,” said the May 12 letter.

“However, recent trends indicate that the current implementation of that policy is unsustainable.”

The provision allowing Marshall Islanders, Micronesians and Palauans visa-free access to America is embedded in the compact of free association treaties with the islands and in U.S. law.

The letter was signed by New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that oversees legislation on U.S.-affiliated islands in the Pacific, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the entire Hawaii delegation, both senators from Arkansas, a state where up to 10,000 Marshall Islanders live, and Guam Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo.

The U.S. legislators want a screening process to reduce “the number of migrants who are likely to become a public charge.” They recommended “screening measures that could be implemented by the freely associated state governments to reduce the rate of migration of persons who are likely to develop an over-reliance on social services.”

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