Hawaii has hundreds of millions of dollars to serve migrants thanks to former Congressman Neil Abercrombie.

That’s what he claims, anyway, in a document released by the Abercrombie campaign for governor entitled, “Serving Hawaii 1st, The Congressional Accomplishments of Neil Abercrombie.”

Under the subheading, “Health Care,” the document says: “When the Compacts of Free Association were reauthorized in 2003, Abercrombie secured $30 million in annual funding through 2023, for a total of $600 million, to offset the impact of compact migrants in Hawaii and other Pacific territories.”

First, some background:

Compact of Free Association

“COFA, the Compact of Free Association, is a series of treaties between the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” explained Lawyers for Equal Justice in a recent FAQ released concurrently with the filing of a lawsuit against the state of Hawaii. “These treaties date back to 1986 when they were signed by President Ronald Reagan and ratified by the U.S. Congress.”

“COFA gives citizens of these three countries the right to travel freely to the U.S. and enjoy whatever privileges are given to U.S. residents. In exchange these countries gave the US certain strategic rights in the Pacific region,” according to the document. “The three COFA countries were formerly part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, a United Nations trusteeship administered by the United States Navy from 1947 to 1951 and by the United States Department of the Interior from 1951 to 1986 (to 1994 for Palau).”

One of the purposes of the treaties was to address the effects of nuclear testing in the region by the United States during the 1940’s and ’50’s. Pacific islanders have suffered from cancer, birth-defects and thyroid disorders as a result of radiation from the tests.

After the original compacts expired in 2001, new negotiations began between the United States and the Pacific nations. What was achieved from those negotiations was the Compact of Free Association Amendments Act of 2003, the act that Abercrombie is referring to. It introduced new requirements to the original compacts that included “enumeration of qualified nonimmigrants… to be conducted no less frequently than every five years,” in Hawaii, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. The enumeration acts as a basis for appropriating funds to the jurisdictions for “a range of development programs and other benefits as a result of the in-migration of COFA migrants.”

As of 2008, the Census Bureau estimated that there were 12,215 compact migrants in Hawaii.

Abercrombie’s Role

According to the Compact of Free Association Amendments Act of 2003, the figure Abercrombie offered, $600 million, was correct. It is also true that the money will help offset the impact of compact migrants until 2023.

The amendment act says: “There is hereby authorized and appropriated to the Secretary of the Interior, out of any funds in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, to remain available until expended, for each fiscal year from 2004 through 2023, $30,000,000 for grants to affected jurisdictions to aid in defraying costs incurred by affected jurisdictions as a result of increased demands placed on health, educational, social, or public safety services or infrastructure related to such services due to the residence in affected jurisdictions of qualified nonimmigrants from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau.”

In Abercrombie’s Congressional Accomplishments document, though, it says that he “secured” this funding. Was his role that pivotal?

If we were to go just by the vote, it wouldn’t appear so.

According to the Library of Congress, the Compact of Free Association Amendments Act of 2003 was introduced by Rep. James Leach of Iowa, Republican, and cosponsored by five other representatives. Abercrombie was not among them.

Abercrombie did vote for the amendment. But so did 417 other representatives.

Further research shows that the vote doesn’t tell the whole story.

“If it weren’t for Neil Abercrombie, the funding for compact migrants in Hawaii and other Pacific territories would not have been $30 million a year for 20 years,” says campaign spokesperson Laurie Au.

Au says that when the initial compacts expired in 2001, while new compact amendments were being negotiated, the U.S. government allowed for a two-year extension of appropriations of $15 million annually. At the time, Hawaii and Guam were caring for the bulk of the compact immigrants but with no proportionate funding to alleviate the financial stress of providing health care and other services.

“That left Neil and Guam’s newly elected representative, Madeleine Bordallo, to negotiate for more funding in this provision,” Au says.

Au told Civil Beat that Abercrombie began to meet with the chair of the House Resources Committee, Republican Richard Pombo, who represented California’s 11th district. Abercrombie was a member of the committee.

“As a result of these meetings,” Au says, “Rep. Pombo agreed to raise the appropriation to $30 million.”

It seemed that the only person in a position to clarify Abercrombie’s role was former Rep. Pombo, a conservative who lost his congressional seat in 2007.

“Absolutely accurate,” Pombo told Civil Beat in a phone interview. “When we did the compact, Neil was the primary negotiator on behalf of the territories and everything we were doing.”

Pombo said that he couldn’t remember the exact numbers of the appropriations, but that “if he says it went from 15 to 30, that’s accurate.”

And Pombo didn’t stop there.

“I gotta tell you that I’m a conservative Republican and Neil is a liberal Democrat, but in all honesty, the guy is a great legislator. Whenever I had something that I had to do in terms of major legislation going through that committee, Neil was always the go-to guy. There’s no doubt he stood up for what he believed in, but he was also a guy that stuck with what was right.”

Pretty good endorsement. Abercrombie’s words stand up to scrutiny.

He did play the major role he says he did.