She can’t be more than 6 or 7 years old, but she shows no hesitation when a reporter and photographer approach her outside her family’s tent in a homeless camp in the Kakaako area of Honolulu.
“Do you have propane or diapers?” she asks, making it clear that she will accept either — or cash.
She says her name is Emichan, and she has lived on the streets for much of her family’s two-year stay in Hawaii. They are from Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia, and Chuukese, Marshallese and other Micronesians have steadily been joining the ranks of Oahu’s homeless population.
Emichan’s family — her little sister Mymy, her mother Lusia Pulusou and aunt Ketely Josua — are homeless in Honolulu because they left Chuuk to get medical help for the family patriarch, Litang Pulusou.
Pulusou suffers from diabetes and regularly visits Kalihi-Palama Health Center. He removes one of his shoes to show that his health woes recently led to the amputation of a toe.
Why would a family emigrate from their island home only to live on the streets of Honolulu?
Because they need to — there is no dialysis in Chuuk and the economy is very weak.
And because they can — a treaty between the United States and three Micronesian nations allows for relatively easy entry into this country.
The Amazing Exodus
Since 1986, when the Compact of Free Association was approved, it’s estimated that at least 30 percent of Micronesians have fled their far-flung island communities in search of economic opportunity, better education and, like Emichan’s family, crucial health care.
Diabetes is just one of many serious health problems afflicting large numbers of Micronesians, yet health care is woefully lacking back home. Besides a lack of dialysis in most regions, care for life-threatening diseases like cancer is limited. The fact that the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear weapons in the then-testing ground of the Marshall Islands certainly contributed to the health problems, and today survival often depends on being able to get medical treatment in the U.S.
To make matters worse, climate change is taking a swift toll on the thousands of islands that make up the nations of greater Micronesia. What little land they have managed to exist on is succumbing to sea level rise and powerful storms.
Hawaii has already become home to an estimated 15,000 people from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau, which together make up what we commonly call the COFA nations.
The COFA nations now receive nearly $200 million a year in direct U.S. aid in exchange for allowing America strategic control over about 2 million square miles of Micronesian islands and surrounding ocean. It is a stronghold in this country’s Asia-Pacific military planning.
Perhaps more importantly, people from the COFA nations can migrate freely and legally to the United States and its territories. All that’s required is an airplane ticket.
Thirty percent — or more — of a population leaving a region is a stunning out-migration, but while the percentage is high the actual numbers are relatively small. As many as 75,000 Micronesians have migrated to the U.S and Guam, just a fraction of U.S. immigration. By comparison, more than 11 million immigrants who were born in Mexico resided in the U.S. in 2012.
Still, the human flow from Micronesia is expected to continue — perhaps in even greater numbers — as most U.S. federal aid to the area is slated to end in just eight years. The economy, already rocky, likely will decline even further.
Hawaii and Guam, where about half of the Micronesian immigrants have landed at least temporarily, are taking the brunt of the costs associated with accommodating these new residents, many in need of social services and government-subsidized health care.
To that end, the federal government gives Hawaii $11 million a year and Guam $16 million a year in what’s known as “Compact-Impact Aid.” Although Micronesians are relocating to communities throughout the mainland — in some places by the thousands — no other states are recipients of Compact impact money.
But political leaders in Hawaii and Guam say the impact aid is simply not enough. In 2014, Hawaii spent $163 million to support COFA migrants with social services, education and health care.
Government officials worry that the financial drain is about to get much, much worse when the direct federal aid to Micronesia dries up.
In Hawaii, hundreds of Micronesians, like Emichan’s family, are indeed ending up in the homeless camps in Kakaako or along the Kapalama Canal. Recent surveys of the homeless population estimate that as many as 20 percent of the people living in shelters or makeshift tents along the sidewalks and in the parks near downtown Honolulu are relatively recent arrivals from the COFA nations some 2,400 miles to the southwest.
But thousands more have settled successfully throughout the Hawaiian islands and the U.S., despite the cultural growing pains of learning new laws and adjusting to new customs that don’t always mesh well with their own.
In Hawaii, the success stories of these unique American immigrants have quietly slipped under the public radar, where photos and footage of hundreds of ramshackle tents a short walk from Hawaii’s crown jewel of Waikiki dominate news coverage.
As a result, “the young people growing up are beginning to disclaim their roots and heritage,” says Vidalino Raatior, director of UH Hilo’s Pacific Islands Student Center and a Chuuk native. “If they were proud Micronesians, they are hiding it now because of possible negative impact. … They start hearing negative jokes and begin doubting the label ‘Micronesian’ and begin to disclaim that.”
But for Micronesians, the very roots Raatior cherishes are increasingly at risk. With the intriguing exception of the Republic of Palau, most of Micronesia’s economy is on shaky ground. Fishing is about the only industry that is thriving. Tourism is tenuous at best and federal aid is clearly propping up construction and providing for moderate improvements to roads, bridges and other needed infrastructure.
Now, the COFA money is largely set to expire in 2023. So far, Congress has been uninclined to extend it and certainly hasn’t moved to increase assistance to Hawaii and Guam.
Charles Paul, the Marshall Islands ambassador in Washington, says there is little expectation that his country could survive on its own.
“The only resource we have is people,” he says. “In order to have a dynamic, well-producing economy, you need healthy people and educated people — human capital. We don’t have diamond mines or oil or gas.”
While the cash flow to Micronesia from the U.S. may be ending, it’s likely the exodus of human capital will escalate. The COFA treaty giving the U.S. strategic control of the area will continue and people from the COFA nations will continue to be able to legally move to the U.S. whenever they want to.
Hawaii’s congressional delegation is keenly aware of the need to act — and soon — to help host communities, like Hawaii and Guam, absorb the additional costs.
But they also recognize that it’s not right to abandon Micronesians in their own countries. Direct aid to Micronesia, after all, would go a long way toward stemming the out-migration of a people struggling to survive in their own countries.
Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, a Democrat from Hawaii, introduced the Compact Impact Aid Act of 2015. If approved by Congress, it would increase Compact impact money primarily for Hawaii and Guam from $30 million to $185 million and would be adjusted as migration levels increase.
For Takai, who as a child lived in Guam for three years, the issue is clear. Because language in the Compact itself states that Congress will act “sympathetically and expeditiously” to cover all adverse consequences of the “freely associated states,” he says the federal government, not the state governments, is on the hook.
Still, it’s all public money, whether federal or state, a fact that is not lost on critics who think taxpayers should not be footing the bill for the unrestricted immigration of thousands of people.
Hawaii Is Ground Zero for Micronesian Immigration
As Hawaii’s dubious reputation for having the highest per capita rate for homelessness in the country grows, so too has the highly visible collection of tents, tarps and cardboard along the streets near downtown Honolulu.
The encampments are home to numerous Micronesians, many of whose tents are clustered together, separate from the local homeless, to form their own community.
“A lot of the COFA community relocated to Hawaii without a plan,” says Kimo Carvalho, the community relations director at the Institute for Human Services shelter in Honolulu. “They did not know our laws, and that is why a majority are here on the streets.”
In fact, Carvalho points out that under the Compact, Micronesians who can’t support themselves can be deported, though that option is rarely exercised.
Ethnic Composition of Kakaako Homeless Population
Ethnic Composition of Kapalama Homeless Population
Earlier this year, the Kapalama Canal community included Esse, a Chuukese woman who was sitting in a white van parked on the street that parallels the canal.
In her late 40s, Esse was wearing the kind of long print dress and slippers that are customary for many Micronesian women.
Her family had been living in tents next to the van for six months. They left Chuuk six years ago, looking for jobs and better schools. After spending some time in Hilo on the Big Island, they came to Oahu where Esse’s son and daughter work during the day and her three other children attend Farrington High School in Kalihi.
The family had applied for housing assistance under the federal Section 8 program but were told the waiting list was several years long. On two occasions, she said, she thought she had secured a rental contract for a house, but the deals soured.
“I don’t know what happened,” she says. “They said it was a problem with the landlord. Maybe they don’t want us. The first owner looked like he did not like us. I went down at 9 a.m. to sign the contract, but I waited two hours. I got a feeling that something was wrong.”
Micronesians and their advocates believe homelessness is exacerbated because landlords discriminate against people from the island communities.
A 2011 study by the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice found that COFA citizens had been exposed to “both blatant and subtle housing discrimination.”
The report cited the example of a Chuukese man who said that when he was searching for an apartment, “landlords would tell him on the telephone that a unit was available. When he met them in person, it became unavailable. Other interviewees said they had heard of similar instances.”
Still, since 2010 complaints about discrimination toward Micronesians represented less than 1 percent of the total received by the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, likely owing to language barriers, fear of reprisal and a lack of awareness of services available for lodging complaints.
“It’s a common misconception that Micronesians just take money,” says Chad Yazawa, who, along with his wife, Emi Hadley, runs the Micronesia Mart at the busy intersection of Kalakaua Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard.
Yazawa notes that many Micronesians pay U.S. taxes, but discrimination is still rampant.
Two years ago, someone spray-painted “Return Our Tax Dollars” on the Micronesia Mart store window, an obvious dig that Micronesians are living off the public dole. The harsh graffiti hurt even more because the store is directly across from the Hawaii Convention Center and at the gateway of Waikiki, the state’s tourism mecca.
Charles Paul, the Republic of the Marshall Island’s ambassador to the U.S., is concerned at the level of racism and discrimination that he says he has seen, even on the mainland.
“It’s really bad, to the point where there were threats to the consulate in Hawaii a couple of years ago,” he says. “By law that’s a federal offense because it’s a consulate, it’s protected under the Geneva Convention. We reported it to the Secret Service, because I take that stuff seriously.”
Paul says some people react out of ignorance, like they do with any new immigrant group.
“All that they see is, ‘Oh, these people come here to live off our hard-paying taxes and don’t contribute.’ And, you know, our response to that is, ‘No, we contribute positively to society.’”
Kids Are Bridging the Cultural Divide
In December 2012, a week before final exams, Kealakehe High, a public high school on the west side of Hawaii’s Big Island, was temporarily closed after racial tensions resulted in fights between students. The brawling affected some 1,600 students, and ultimately, eight students were arrested, charged with disorderly conduct and released.
The reason for the fighting, according to the state Department of Education, was “a misunderstanding between local, Micronesian and Marshallese cultures and lifestyles.”
No one was seriously hurt in the altercation, but Wilfred Murakami, Kealakehe’s principal, and other school officials reached out to the community, especially the parents and elders of the Micronesian students, to work through some of the cultural clashes.
According to some, the fight served to release racial tension that had been building in the community. There have been no reported incidences of violence since, and Kealii Freitas, a social studies teacher and coach, says “It is absolutely better, 180 degrees.”
“I almost think it had to happen,” Freitas says. “It’s too bad that it got to the point that it did, that it escalated so quickly. But that almost had to happen so people could come out and say, ‘Yeah, you know what, I feel like I’m discriminated against. Yeah, you know what, I feel like the teachers don’t even know me.’”
For the most part, Micronesians are gradually assimilating into Hawaii’s public school system where educators are finding that encouraging kids to understand each other is creating common ground.
Teenage pregnancy is still a concern, and Murakami says a number of Micronesian kids have had multiple children even before their junior year of high school. That means 14- and 15-year-olds aren’t coming to school.
A disproportionate rate of suspension is also keeping Micronesians out of school. A Civil Beat analysis of suspensions earlier this year found that Micronesian students along with Native Hawaiians and Tongans are suspended from school at rates four times higher than Japanese students and twice as high as white and Filipino students.
Prejudice against Micronesians, particularly on the Big Island where the communities are largely rural, stems in part from certain behaviors that have upset some in the local community, Murakami and Freitas say.
Micronesians tend to take too many ulu — breadfruit — from a tree or too many fish from popular fishing spots. That’s because their cultural practice is to share with others.
Freitas says he’d like to see his students, particularly the Native Hawaiians, recognize their shared experiences with Micronesians.
“The ironic thing is, Hawaiians learned to navigate and sail the canoe from Mau Piailug,” he says, speaking of the Micronesian navigator who taught traditional wayfaring methods to the crew of the Hokulea, a modern, reconstructed double-hulled voyaging canoe. “I was surprised that a lot of those kids don’t know. When we talked about it in the class, you can feel the pride of the Micronesian students.”
On the opposite end of the Big Island, in the town of Papaikou, just north of the main city of Hilo, Robin Miller teaches fourth grade at Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Elementary and Intermediate School. Her class of dozens of students during the most recent school year included seven Marshallese and one Chuukese.
“There has been some friction locally about ‘Micronesian people coming here and taking our stuff,’” she says, but her class had discussions about the U.S. nuclear testing and looked at photos of the explosions and fallout from Bikini Atoll.
“My young Marshallese students explained ‘the land is poison there … food won’t grow. … if you live there you get poisoned,’ Miller said, noting that the response from the other students was shock and empathy.
“The wisdom of 10-year-old kids is so clear,” she says, with many of them asking her, “Why would people do that? Didn’t they know they would hurt people?”
Lauren O’Leary, the school’s principal, says in terms of teaching, language challenges are considerable. The proficiency levels can vary greatly, she says.
“When they come in not speaking English at home, then we have to do everything we can here to help them accelerate as quickly as possible,” she says. “But if they can’t read on a page, that’s a huge thing.”
In fact, the largest COFA expenditures in 2014 were for the state Department of Education, which spent $87 million to educate 8,165 COFA students, many of whom required specialized language services.
O’Leary notes that some students are not even familiar with books, while Miller says one of her students had never held a pencil before. School bells for lunch and recess are initially a foreign experience, as is sticking to a formal schedule.
Costs Are Growing But Hawaii Has No Plan
In February, Asterio Takesy, the Federated States of Micronesia’s ambassador to the United States, moved easily through the crowd of about 50 Micronesians gathered at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in the working-class neighborhood of Kalihi for “Health Connect Day.”
Takesy, a slender man in an aloha shirt, paused frequently, kissing the head of an elderly woman in a wheelchair, leaning in to talk to another woman using a walker. He was more than an hour late but his appearance and personal attention, he said, made a statement about the importance of the cause.
Takesy, who lives in Washington, D.C., understands as well as anyone the importance of that relatively small gathering in Kalihi.
Health care is critical for many Micronesians who come to Hawaii and other communities in the U.S. in search of medical assistance that they can’t get back in their island nations. But how to pay for that care has been one of the biggest hurdles facing state officials since the COFA agreement was signed in 1986.
Since then costs for health care, education and social services for COFA immigrants have steadily climbed.
Reported Compact Impact Costs, 1998-2014
In 2009, Hawaii’s then governor, Republican Linda Lingle, kicked COFA citizens out of the state-run health insurance program. She put the cost of paying for their health care at $100 million and said it was bankrupting the state.
Even six years ago, health care and other costs were nearly 10 times higher than the $11 million Hawaii receives each year from the federal government in impact assistance.
In 2014, the most recent estimate available, the state said it needed more than $163 million to cover the cost of providing services to COFA immigrants. More than 40 percent of that goes for health care and human services.
Switching Micronesians to the federal Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — is expected to save Hawaii $29 million in health care costs for COFA citizens alone.
Still, federal dollars are public money the same as state funds. And the draw from the public treasury for COFA citizens has been an increasing source of frustration for some Hawaii leaders.
In 2010, Charles Djou, a former GOP congressman from Hawaii who was running again for a congressional seat, told students interviewing him for a video project that Micronesians immigrate to Hawaii to abuse the welfare system. Djou insisted that being homeless in Hawaii was better than being wealthy in Micronesia.
That same year, after losing to his Democratic opponent in November, Djou said in a press release, “For too long, the taxpayers of Hawaii have had to bear a disproportionate burden in providing social services for Micronesian citizens who travel to the United States visa-free thanks to the Compact of Free Association. It is estimated that while Micronesian citizens make up less than one percent of Hawaii’s population, they consume over 20 percent of our social services. This cost is simply too high and unfair when Hawaii, like any other state, is making tough choices to survive these difficult times.”
Djou, who was simply wrong about COFA citizens consuming more than 20 percent of Hawaii’s social services — it’s actually less than 10 percent — also championed cutting services to Micronesians when he ran for Congress again last year.
Whether Congress cuts COFA dollars or not, Hawaii will continue to struggle to pay for COFA costs. The cost has already grown fivefold since 2002, and the problem is only going to grow in coming years as more and more Micronesians leave the region.
Yet Hawaii’s current leaders have no real plan to deal with the increasing burden beyond keeping their fingers crossed that Congress will boost Compact-Impact Aid and allow COFA citizens in the U.S. to once again qualify for Medicaid.
Honolulu officials appear to be counting on the state to shoulder the burden even though most of the Micronesian population is concentrated in the urban core.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige said in a recent interview that Hawaii has an obligation to COFA citizens that must be honored. “The people of Hawaii are compassionate and they do believe that everyone should have access to health care and education, and so, yes, we are providing the services,” he says.
“It is painful? Yes it is,” he says. “But I do believe that the majority of people support providing educational and health services to these migrants from the Federated States and Palau and the Marshall Islands.”
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell never responded to requests for an interview for this story. Honolulu is home to the bulk of COFA immigrants in Hawaii including several hundred who are homeless and in need of services.
But Joey Manahan, a Honolulu City Council member who is a Filipino immigrant, has taken a real interest in the Micronesian immigrants, particularly those who are living in tents in Kakaako and Kapalama, which is part of his council district.
He has pushed the city to erect temporary shelters near homeless camps. But his priority lies with businesses along the Kapalama canal that say the homeless camps have driven off customers. Manahan led the effort to erect a chain-link fence along the Kohou Street side of the canal, forcing campers like Esse to move elsewhere.
Manahan said the Council does not directly deal with COFA residents and so is not prepared to do much about the growing problems although recently the city, with the Council’s support, has been making an effort to clear the homeless camps in Honolulu.
“At the city we deal mostly with property taxes, our main source of revenue, and we provide mostly core services,” he says. “When we have a point of contact, it’s unfortunately the homeless issue, like enforcing the stored property and sidewalk ordinances and so forth.”
Manahan says more affordable housing will help Micronesians in Hawaii because it will get them off the streets.
Micronesians themselves are stepping up to help new arrivals, and that may turn out to be the best way to reduce the need for state-subsidized services.
Joakim “Jojo” Peter and Josie Howard are immigrants from Chuuk. They both came to Hawaii to pursue studies at the University of Hawaii. Howard has a master’s degree in social work and now works for a nonprofit that helps at-risk families. Peter is a Ph.D. student at UH Manoa.
The groups, along with the Micronesian Community Network, have been working to help address health care issues for Micronesians, including helping navigate the complex enrollment process for Obamacare.
The advocacy groups, for example, pushed the Hawaii Legislature to help COFA citizens with Affordable Care Act copays. None of the measures passed.
On the Big island, another nonprofit, Micronesians United, has been working since 2004 on behalf of COFA immigrants.
“The biggest challenge is finding jobs, especially jobs that are equal to their experiences and skills from back home,” says Craig Severance, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served on one of Chuuk’s outer islands. He’s now on the board of Micronesians United.
Government-supported Migrant Resource Centers in Chuuk, Pohnpei and Majuro, each established within the past two years, advise Micronesians who want to migrate how they can do so safely and effectively. And the Halau Ola One-Stop Center opened in Honolulu in August to act as “central hub” linking Micronesians with public services and other resources.
Recognizing the importance of the advocacy groups, Ige says his administration has stepped up outreach to Micronesian organizations in Hawaii and also to the leaders of the COFA nations to find better ways to address the needs of their migrant citizens. He would especially like to see the nations better prepare their people to immigrate, such as ensuring they have proper identification, language services and awareness of the U.S. laws.
In Micronesia, for example, a migrant resource center offering pre-departure orientation wasn’t opened until 2013.
Pohnpei’s International Organization for Migration gives guidance on everything from how to operate the flush toilets on airplanes to awareness training on human trafficking. Subsequent centers have since opened in Chuuk and on Majuro, the Marshall Islands capital, in the hopes of easing the immigration experience.
On the arrivals side, two non-governmental organizations — one in Hawaii and one on Guam — have been bolstered by $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Interior to establish wrap-around “one-stop” social services for Micronesian migrants.
The state, Ige says, may not have a plan to deal with increasing COFA costs and immigration, but he is very much aware of the challenges that the ending of Compact funding will bring.
“I am concerned, and that’s why I think in our conversations, especially with government officials, we want to be proactive and begin to have more cooperation,” he says. “Obviously as we get closer to the deadline and the end of the Compact, at least the funding portion of it, then we can begin to see how we can work together to help the migrant population really assimilate better and become more successful.”
More Stories In This Special Report