Some focus on the benefits Micronesians receive from the U.S., but the relationship is more complex.
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As a citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia, I have been very saddened to read recent reports of negative attitudes and discrimination directed at our fellow Micronesians by some in the United States.
We hear stories about Micronesian schoolchildren being singled out by bullies, Micronesian families being discriminated against by landlords, and Micronesians crowding homeless shelters.
Perhaps more disturbingly, this stereotype of Micronesians as victims, scapegoats and scroungers has been fueled by politicians characterizing Micronesian migrants as a drain on government resources, in what has been described as a “Compact Impact problem”.
Having recently received an email from a cousin of mine, Hainrick Panuelo, who is in the U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan asking what we are doing about the criticisms that are being directed against Micronesians in Hawaii, Guam and elsewhere in the United States, this issue is very personal to me.
Micronesians are on the front lines of war zones, fighting alongside American citizens and defending the same freedoms and rights that Americans value so much. There is a disconnect between the United States Government’s honoring of our fallen servicemen at the Pohnpei International Airport and the talk of “Compact Impact problems” from American citizens and officials alike. I also have personal experience of the compromises we have made in voting to support the national interests of the U.S. at the United Nations at the expense of our relations with other developing nations.
So, here I say today, where did our real friends go?
Why such a short memory? Micronesia and the United States have a unique and special relationship, following the U.S. trusteeship of the region. Our Compact of Free Association with the United States permits our citizens to enter, work, and reside in the United States, and grants similar rights to United States citizens wishing to live and work in our islands.
While the Compact Impact cost is a mere speck in the totality of the U.S. economy, the immigration provisions of the Compact are a lifeline for small island economies like that of the FSM.
Although some may choose to focus on the benefits Micronesians receive from the United States, the totality of our relationship is more complex. The Compact gives the United States government veto powers over the nearly one million square miles of Micronesia’s waters and air space. The U.S. can no more unilaterally create a bottleneck for FSM citizens’ rights to freely travel and work in the United States, than the government of the Federated States of Micronesia can revisit the defense provisions of the Compact.
Aren’t the veto powers over the waters and air space of the FSM that the two countries agreed in the Compact a security and strategic lifeline for the U.S.? As a student at the time the Compact was signed and as a Congressman now, I have always believed that that is a fair exchange. And so Micronesia shouldn’t be looked at as a charity case.
I am not denying that the reliance of some Micronesians on social service programs in the U.S. is a valid concern. The reality is that some of our citizens are not prepared to enter the competitive U.S. job market. Every new migrant group faces this kind of hurdle. Our Compact negotiators on both sides early on foresaw this issue and included compensation provisions in the Compact for the U.S. Federal government to reimburse US territories or States affected by the kind of Compact Impact we are talking about today.
So, why such a short memory? But we are mostly hearing negative reports about the impact of the Compact. By contrast, every time I travel to the U.S. it makes me proud to see just how many Micronesians are working hard at U.S. airports, in the U.S. tourism and service industry, in the manufacturing industry, in the fields of Maui and on farms elsewhere in the US, in the fast-food industry, and in nursing homes caring for senior citizens. In fact, a great number of our citizens are productive members of the U.S. workforce contributing to the U.S. economy.
Just among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I know many FSM citizens who are succeeding in the United States. Len Isotoff from Chuuk is currently the General Manager of Matson Navigation Co. for Guam and Micronesia, and the Chairman of the USO in Guam, a non-profit organization that provides morale and recreational services to members of the U.S.military.
A cousin of mine, Walden Weilbacher from the island of Pohnpei, is the head of the Secretariat of the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures based in Guam and an active member of the FSM-Guam Community. Aren Palik, from the State of Kosrae, is the President and CEO of the Pacific Islands Development Bank based in Guam, which was established in 1989 to help accelerate the economic and social development of member countries.
Vidalino Raatior, from the State of Chuuk, is currently Assistant Director at the International Programs Office at Santa Clara University in Northern California and has sent students to more than 105 study abroad program locations in more than 50 countries. Mr. Raatior also has a successful home-based web design business.
Rocketchun Holden, an FSM citizen from the island of Pohnpei, employs around forty people in the courier business he started fourteen years ago in Idaho, and another twenty in his expanding chain of sushi restaurants. Mr. Bruce Musrasrik, an FSM citizen from the State of Pohnpei who, in June 2007, was promoted to Hotel Manager for the Ohana Islander Waikiki which is part of the chain of Ohana Hotels and Resorts.
I also have many well-educated FSM citizen college classmates and friends, too numerous to mention here, living across the United States in gainful employment and contributing to the U.S. economy in their respective professions and skills. Most of these friends have lived in the U.S. for a long time with their families and children. I am encouraged and feel hope for our future as a nation when I see and talk to their well-educated children.
Together with our real friends in the U.S., we need to do more to promote the positive impact that our relationship has on both our nations. I hope that together we can begin to create a climate where American officials and citizens can focus on the benefits, and not just the costs, of the Compact.
One of our founding fathers, the late John Mangefel, said it well during the negotiations when he said, “you cannot put a ship on a canoe, but you can put a canoe on a ship.’’ In other words, when there are challenges to be faced in our relationship, the ship of the United States has more capacity to address them than the FSM canoe.
About the author: * David W. Panuelo is from the State of Pohnpei who was elected in March of this year and was sworn-in in May 2011 as new member of the 17th FSM Congress. The FSM Congress is comprised of 14 members. Congressman Panuelo is the Chairman of J&GO Committee and serves on other Standing Committees including the Ways and Means, Foreign Affairs, and Resources and Development Committees of the 17th FSM Congress. His past experience includes work in the FSM Foreign Affairs as Deputy Ambassador in the FSM Embassy to Fiiji, Deputy Ambassador in the FSM Mission/Embassy to the United Nations.*
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