How serious is discrimination against Micronesians living and working Hawaii?

Very serious, and it is found in our schools, our workplaces, and our hospitals and clinics. It is also having a direct impact on Micronesians trying to find affordable housing and steady jobs.

So said a dozen officials, social workers and community activists who shared their views at a hearing at the Hawaii State Capitol on Thursday.

The occasion was a meeting of a Hawaii advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which plans to share what it heard about discrimination against Micronesians with Congress.

COFA hearing at Capitol

From left, Jojo Peter of the Compact of Free Association Community Advocacy Network, Esther Kiaaina of the U.S. Interior Department, Connie Mitchell of the Institute for Human Services and Josie Howard of We Are Oceania at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearing at the Capitol on Thursday.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Committee chairwoman Nalani Fujimori Kaina said before the meeting that the issue of Micronesian immigration is “one of the most important civil rights issues presently facing Hawaii.”

The advisory committee includes Honolulu City Councilwoman Kim Pine, former Hawaiian Electric executive Robbie Alm, former Hawaii House of Representative Vice Speaker Jackie Young and longtime educator Amy Agbayani.

Here’s a summary of some of the key points made at the hearing:

The complex compact: The reason why Micronesians are allowed to travel freely to the U.S. and its territories such as Guam is because the 1986 Compact of Free Association treaty between the U.S. and the COFA nations — the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands — allows for it. In return, the U.S. has complete strategic control of the 2 million square miles that comprise the region.

As Esther Kiaaina, an assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Interior’s Insular Affairs Office, explained, the issue of “compact impact” — that is, mitigating the effect of large migration to places like Guam and Hawaii — is complex and requires support from not only governments but average citizens. “We must aloha our Micronesian brothers and sisters just as we would any other migrant population going to Hawaii,” she says.

Varying counts: There are varying sources for the numbers of Micronesian living in Hawaii. A 2013 report, says Kiaaina, estimated 14,700 Micronesians live in Hawaii. Of those, 140 were born here, so they are now U.S. citizens. About 9,330 are from Chuuk, more than 4,700 from the Marshalls and more than 350 from Palau. But, as Rachael Wong, the director of the state Department of Human Services, said, a 2014 figure based on who is receiving medical coverage came to nearly 17,000 Micronesians.

Meanwhile, a representative from the state Department of Education said there are 8,130 students from COFA nations in Hawaii public and charter schools, or about 4 percent of the total. The total COFA population is likely higher, say those who track such numbers.

William Hoshijo Hawaii Civil Rights Commission speaks during Panel 1, Hawaii Advisory Committee to US Commission on Civil Rights to hold public meeting on Micronesian Immigration Issues. 20 aug 2015.  photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

William Hoshijo of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission said Micronesians are unfairly scapegoated as being a burden on health and human services.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Unfairly scapegoated: Even though they are allowed to live and work here, and even though many are gainfully employed and paying taxes, and even though they are entitled to some benefits, COFA citizens in the islands are scapegoated as being a burden on health and human services. That, said William Hoshijo of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, has resulted in ugly, vitriolic rhetoric directed at Micronesians that exacerbates their experiences with exclusion from housing, health and other services. However, complaints about discrimination toward Micronesians represented less than 1 percent of the total received by Hoshijo’s office since 2010.

The reasons for the lack of complaints, say Micronesians and their supporters, include fear of reprisal, language barriers and a lack of awareness of services available for lodging complaints.

Not enough resources: The federal government does not spend enough on “compact impact” aid to help places like Guam and Hawaii address the needs of their growing Micronesian populations. The chances of the federal government providing more aid are slim, said Kiaaina.

Meanwhile, people like Kelii Akina of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii say increased federal aid is not sustainable. Instead, the solution is revitalization of the economies of Micronesia, which are not strong and are heavily dependent on U.S. funding.

• Contributors to society: Gavin Thornton of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice would like to see less discussion on the use of federal resources for Micronesians and more recognition of the contributions they are making to Hawaii. When media organizations, for example, misrepresent the number of Micronesians living on the streets in Kakaako, it only increases antagonism toward them, he said.

Yes, Micronesians are overrepresented in the homeless camps, but many more are employed and contributing to society, said Thornton.

Esther Kiaaina, Assistant Secretary, Office of Insular Affairs, US Dept of the Interior talks to Rachael Wong, Dept of Human Services after short presentation at the Hawaii Advisory Committee to US Commission on Civil Rights, public meeting on Micronesian immigration issues. 20 aug 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Esther Kiaaina, an assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of the Interior, explained the role of the Office of Insular Affairs regarding the Compact of Free Association to commission members.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

• Lack of planning: Micronesia has failed to prepare its citizens for emigration to the U.S. but Hawaii has also failed to plan for their arrival. Connie Mitchell of the Institute for Human Services, where COFA citizens make up as much as 35 percent of the clients, says she does not believe any other U.S. city or jurisdiction has the kind of homeless COFA population that Honolulu has.

Mitchell would like to see more support, primarily educational, for Micronesians in their home islands so that they have realistic expectations of what they will encounter in a high-cost place like Hawaii.

• Avoiding labels: We need to come up with a different term for Micronesian other than “COFA migrants.” Joanne Loeak, a Marshallese who is an outreach advocate and paralegal with Legal Aid of Hawaii, said “migrant” is an offensive label that misrepresents their true status. Micronesians are diverse with different languages, customs and histories.

Rebecca Gardner, a legal analyst with the state’s Office of Language Access, said other Hawaii residents need to learn more about this country’s long relationship with Micronesia to better appreciate their experiences and help them integrate into our society.

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