WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hawaii took a step Tuesday towards finally recouping a large chunk of the estimated $115 million it has been paying annually to cover the costs of providing health care to migrants from Micronesia. The Senate Judiciary Committee added a provision pushed by Sen. Mazie Hirono to allow Micronesian and others living in the United States through the Compact of Free Association to be eligible for Medicaid.
The immigration bill still has a long way to go to being passed by the full Senate and then the House. But if approved, the provision would save Hawaii about $40 million a year in unreimbursed health care costs.
A sign the provision stands a good chance of at least passing the Senate came in Tuesday’s committee vote. Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, called the measure “a fair amendment. It should be non-controversial.”
Amending the immigration bill has been considered tricky because it was carefully crafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators. However, one of the so-called Gang of Eight, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., gave his blessing to the measure saying the COFA migrants had been inadvertently made ineligible for Medicaid under another bill passed several years ago. The amendment was added unanimously by the bipartisan committee.
The issue stems from U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. To compensate the residents for the effects of the testing, the 1985 compact allows residents of the Freely Associated States to live, study, or work in the U.S. More than 20,000 migrants live in the United States.
Sen. Brian Schatz praised Hirono for making progress on getting compact migrants Medicaid.
“This has been a long-standing challenge for the Hawaii delegation and for the state of Hawaii’s finances,” Schatz said in a statement. “It is the federal government’s responsibility to provide these services and it is unfortunate that Hawaii is bearing the cost, but this amendment would help remedy the situation.”
Getting more reimbursements for the costs has been a high priority for Hawaii’s congressional delegations for years. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa last year introduced a measure that would have increased federal reimbursement for the Microneaseans to Hawaii, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. Hanabusa introduced another measure earlier this year to reimburse the state for Medicaid benefits.
According to Hanabusa’s press release this year, Hawaii spends more than $100 million annually for housing, educating, and providing health care for COFA migrants, but is only reimbursed $11 million by the federal government.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Neil Abercrombie said he was pleased that Sen. Hirono brought this issue to the table.
“But as with all legislation, we will have to wait and see how it ends up as our concerns have always been the financial impact to our state,” spokeswoman Louise Kim McCoy said in a statement.
“That’s a lot of money for a small state like Hawaii,” Hirono said of the $100 million cost at Tuesday’s hearing. Given the cost stems from national security policies, she said, “It’s only fair that the federal government share some of the costs with us.”
Leahy likened the amendement to other defense related costs such as paying to support the children of American soldiers during the Vietnam war or allowing Iraqis who supported U.S. troops as interpreters to immigrate to the U.S.
The amendment was one of four added by Hirono to the immigration bill as the committee continued to work its way through 300 provisions proposed by senators. The committee, also unanimously, approved an amendment to let Hawaii longline fishing crews to get visas to rotate crews in Hawaii.
Federal law requires U.S. fleets to rotate foreign crews at foreign ports. While mainland fleets can comply with this crew rotation requirement by rotating foreign crews at ports in nearby Canada or Mexico, Hawaii-based vessels must make a round-trip voyage — often taking more than two weeks — to reach the nearest foreign port.
Hirono’s amendment would allow U.S. vessels to temporarily rotate their nonimmigrant foreign crews in Hawaii through C1/D crew visas. It’s the same option available to U.S. ships rotating crews in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
“Both of these amendments address longstanding issues that impact Hawaii, and getting these measures included in immigration reform legislation is a big victory for our state,” Hirono said in a statement after the vote. “My amendment restoring Medicaid eligibility for compact migrants would save Hawaii taxpayers millions each year, and another measure the committee adopted today would fix rules that negatively impact Hawaii fishermen.”
The panel on Monday also added two more of Hirono’s 24 proposed amendments to the sweeping immigration bill.
One allows the Department of Homeland Security to consider keeping families together when they are deported. The law currently requires adult men to be transferred to a location far from where they are intercepted at the border while their families are sent back across the border from where they are caught.
The other measure gives more authority to the Homeland Security official charged with protecting the rights of those navigating the immigration system.
Another Hirono measure that did not pass yet is aimed at making it easier for Filipino World War II veterans to bring family members to join them from the Philippines. It is considered to have a good chance of being added to the immigration bill later this week.
Still, for a freshman senator like Hirono to get four amendments through is no small feat. It’s unknown if the measures approved by the committee are a consolation prize given that several other measures she’s pushing are expected to have a tougher time. They include a measure that would undo provisions in the immigration bill that would make it harder to bring family members to the U.S.
The immigration bill would call for the visa applications of the siblings and adult married children of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents waiting to be processed in the next eight years. They now face a decades long wait.
However, after that, the siblings and adult married children would no longer be able to immigrate based solely on their family relationships. Hirono’s amendments address a major issue for Asian American groups around the country and would allow them to continue being able to immigrate based on family status.