US demand for limits on Micronesian migration to get focus at summit

Monday, July 25, 2011 12:00AM By Giff Johnson – For Variety

MAJURO — United States calls for limiting the number of Micronesians and Marshall Islanders eligible to enter America under a visa-free treaty provision will be a top item on the agenda at the July 28 Micronesian Presidents Summit in Pohnpei.

President Johnson Toribiong of Palau, President Manny Mori of the Federated States of Micronesia and President Jurelang Zedkaia of the Marshall Islands are holding high level talks, with the Pohnpei meeting focused largely on addressing the recent push by the U.S. Congress and Obama administration to develop ways to reduce the number of islanders who become dependent on public services in the U.S.

“The three presidents will address it,” Foreign Minister John Silk Thursday. “From the meeting, we should have a coordinated approach since this affects all three countries.”

But the Marshall Islands is objecting to U.S. efforts to fast track the discussions.

A proposal to establish joint U.S.-Marshall Islands and US-Federated States of Micronesia task forces to discuss ways to limit the entry of Marshallese and Micronesians to the U.S. was discussed with top island leaders earlier this month, said the U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands on Thursday.

The aim, said Ambassador Martha Campbell, is to have a plan of action for approval by the JEMFAC and JEMCO meetings at the end of August.

The Joint Economic Management and Financial Accountability Committee, or JEMFAC, is the U.S.-Marshall Islands group that meets twice a year to address budget issues in the Compact of Free Association treaty relationship, and the Joint Economic Management Committee, or JEMCO, is the committee for the Federated States of Micronesia.

But Silk said he doesn’t see the upcoming JEMFAC budget meeting as the right forum to discuss this issue. “We’re working to address these issues, but the Marshall Islands message to the U.S. is we can’t change the Compact through JEMFAC,” he said. The issue needs to be the subject of a separate bilateral meeting between the two countries, he said.

Since 1986, islanders from Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands have enjoyed visa-free entry to the U.S. to study, work and live as part of a treaty that gives the U.S. military control of an area as large as the continental U.S. in the western Pacific. In recent years, however, U.S. states have complained that the cost of providing health services to islanders is not sustainable.

Silk said what puzzled him about the current rush to develop a plan of action on the U.S. desire to limit entrance to the U.S. is that it is coming in advance of release of an important U.S. government study on the issue. Last year, U.S. Congressional leaders asked the Government Accountability Office to review the impact of migrants from the islands on U.S. states, the territory of Guam and the Northern Marianas. This report is expected to be released late in 2011.

“Why couldn’t this wait until the GAO report is out later this year?” Silk asked, noting that it was the U.S. Congress that requested the GAO to study the issue of Compact “impact.”

Campbell said the “idea of a task force to address the issues raised by U.S. congressional leaders was discussed in the FSM, as well as here in the Marshall Islands.” The issue was discussed during Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell’s visit to the islands at the beginning of July.

“Following up on Assistant Secretary Campbell’s very successful visit, we look forward to working with the Marshall Islands government to develop creative solutions to reduce the social service burden on the U.S. states of Marshallese who emigrate to the U.S. solely for medical treatment or who have no means of support,” said Ambassador Campbell.

“The U.S. and the Marshall Islands governments will be discussing options over the next month, and we hope there will be an action plan to present to the JEMFAC in late August,” she said.

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