Pacific Island Report

State department proposal would screen FAS visitors


By Giff Johnson and Bernadette Carreon

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Marianas Business Journal, July 18, 2011) – A high-level U.S. State Department official confirmed that the visa-free status that has allowed Micronesians, Marshallese and Palauans to fly to the United States without restriction is on the table for review and possible revision.

Kurt Campbell, assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, made this clear during a Pacific tour in early July.

While confirming that the U.S. government recognizes the special relationship with the three freely associated states, Campbell said there are Compact issues that “must be addressed” – a reference to the visa-free provision – as the United States is faced with a “different set of financial circumstances.”

One of the salient features of the Compacts of Free Association for Freely Associated States (FAS) citizens is the visa-free access allowing them to live, work and study without restriction in the United States, including Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

U.S. Congressional leaders have put the Obama administration on notice that it must address the migration of islanders to the United States immediately.

Campbell said U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii had put it on State and Interior’s agenda with the urgency of a “crisis.”

Congressional leaders and state governments in the United States, including Guam, are raising questions about what they say are high costs of providing health, education and social services to FAS citizens living in the United States and Guam and the limited or lack of U.S. federal reimbursement of those costs.

“We are not making changes to the Compact of Free Association,” Campbell said in Majuro.

But he said an important point for the visa-free access provision of the Compact is that people who come to the United States must be able to demonstrate their ability to engage in gainful employment. “We’d like to possibly establish a joint task force” with the FAS governments to undertake this review, Campbell said.

In Palau, the U.S. Embassy in Koror is still trying to verify if the proposed screening procedure would also apply to Palauans.

U.S. Ambassador Helen Reed-Rowe said the embassy was under the impression that Palau was not targeted for the proposed entry restriction for FAS citizens.

She said the recommendation from some members of the U.S. Congress was specifically aimed at Federated States of Micronesia and Marshall Islands citizens, who account for the largest number of FAS migrants to the United States.

Palau President Johnson Toribiong said the proposed entry-restriction for Palauans is not likely to pull through without a mutual decision. “I do not believe that can happen without a substantive amendment of the Compact,” he said.

Last year, several Congressional leaders wrote to the U.S. Government Accountability Office asking for a full review of the adequacy of “Compact impact” aid from the federal government to the states, Guam and NMI. That review was launched in January, and GAO expects to issue its report later this year.

But nine members of the U.S. Congress would not wait for the release of the GAO report. On May 12, they wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar directing that they reach agreement with the Marshall Islands and FSM leaders this summer to redirect some Compact funding to address health and migration problems, and to set up a screening system for migrating islanders. The Congressional leaders want to restrict the flow of FAS citizens 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 and that many are ending up as “public charges.”

Guam’s Delegate to Congress Madeleine Bordallo is proposing a national strategy to assess the health care status of Pacific Islanders.

Campbell acknowledged that screening FAS citizens for employability or other issues – such as health problems – is a challenge. “We need a deeper look at this,” he said. “[However,] the current status puts an enormous burden on the social services of Hawaii and Arkansas and other states. We need to address this in a comprehensive way.”

Congressional leaders instructed the State and Interior departments to negotiate these issues with FSM and Marshall Islands officials at the annual Compact funding management meetings scheduled for the end of August in Hawaii, and to report back on the results by Oct. 1. But U.S. officials not associated with Campbell’s visit to Koror, Pohnpei and Majuro earlier this month indicated recently that these annual Compact budget meetings are not the appropriate forum to address the issues. The United States is likely to request separate bilateral meetings with each of the governments to focus on its concerns, though none have been scheduled.

Campbell recognized the long-standing strategic relationship, and the “incredible service” of people from the islands in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, he said, “we’re facing a different set of finance circumstances. This is uncharted ground. We have to be attentive to these new circumstances.”

Campbell pointed out that the model of the United States “as the sole provider of grants (to the FAS) will come under much more serious scrutiny. It is a different world we are entering into.”

On May 12, the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures adopted a resolution urging Washington to honor the terms of the Compact, noting that FSM, Marshall Islands and Palau negotiated their immigration privileges with United States in exchange for mutual benefits.

The Compacts were first approved for the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia in 1986, and for Palau in the mid-1990s. The Marshall Islands and FSM Compacts were renewed in 2003 and Palau’s new deal is awaiting congressional approval.

Marianas Business Journal
Copyright © 2011 Glimpses of Guam Inc., All Rights Reserved

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