Micronesians are leaving their island homes by the tens of thousands, and no place is feeling the effects of the influx of new immigrants more than Hawaii.

By some estimates, at least 30 percent of the populations of the three nations given free passage to the U.S. under the Compact of Free Association have already left. Migration to Hawaii is rising steadily, with social services costs shouldered by taxpayers ballooning fivefold since 2002. This despite promises by the federal government to offset costs to both Hawaii and Guam.

And, as Civil Beat’s special report, “The Micronesians,” concludes, when direct U.S. aid to the COFA nations ends in 2023, that out-migration is surely going to increase. Hawaii and Guam will continue to take the brunt of it.

Hawaii continues to be ill-prepared to welcome our newest immigrants, even though the consequences of that lack of preparation have become more troubling and obvious in recent years.

But it is both naive and dangerous for Hawaii to sit on its hands, waiting for a knight in federal armor to alleviate the financial burden associated with Micronesian immigration.

A more urgent conversation needs to begin, and it must include all stakeholders — state and federal policymakers and the leadership of Micronesia as well.

A Micronesian homeless family in Kakaako. February, 2014.
A Micronesian homeless family in Kakaako in February 2014. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat

The discussion must acknowledge the very special relationship between the COFA nations and the United States, one that is rooted in the Micronesians’ sacrifice for American security. The U.S. detonated 67 nuclear bombs — a truly shocking number — in the Marshall Islands after World War II. The effects of those blasts still reverberate in Micronesian health, culture and economies.

The onus to address these issues rests most heavily on the federal government, but Hawaii political leaders, especially our congressional delegation, need to do more to get the bureaucrats in the U.S. State Department and politicians in Congress to notice our state’s needs.

While many members of the Hawaii delegation have called for increased Compact-Impact Aid and restored Medicaid benefits to Micronesian immigrants, they say such efforts fall on deaf ears in Washington.

We think this simply means they need to speak louder and work harder to form coalitions that can affect change on these issues.

With only eight years until direct federal aid to COFA nations expires, we need to build the awareness and momentum now to amend the COFA treaty and extend aid beyond 2023. Without it, the COFA nations face economic uncertainty at best, and many Micronesian leaders predict their countries won’t survive.

It is, of course, hugely frustrating to see how little the COFA governments have to show for the past three decades of American investment. Given this failure, it can be tempting for policymakers, politicians and average citizens to wipe our collective conscience clean of any further responsibility to Micronesians.

But to do so would ignore the root of the problem, which is that a dire economic picture and inadequate health, education and infrastructure are, primarily, what drive the massive out-migration in the first place.

Recognizing the need for COFA nations to improve conditions at home, the U.S. has amended the COFA treaty once before.

In 2003, Albert V. Short, a U.S. State Department worker, negotiated that economic assistance to the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia be continued through 2023 and that trust funds be established for both countries to provide additional revenue past 2023.

In testimony before the House of Representatives, the No. 1 reason he gave for continuing financial assistance to our “staunchest friends in the United Nations”  was to advance economic self-reliance.

But it is clear that the COFA nations are nowhere closer to being economically self-reliant than they were in 2003. The COFA nations must do more to address concerns of wasteful spending and shoddy accounting, but stripping them of their safety net is guaranteed to end in a free-fall.

While COFA governments need federal support to stop citizens from leaving, they also need Hawaii’s support in taking care of citizens who do decide to move.

More government-sponsored initiatives are needed to better prepare COFA immigrants before they leave and help them land on their feet once they arrive. Migrant resource centers both in the COFA nations and in Hawaii need to work together to help immigrants assimilate both faster and more smoothly than they have thus far.

Micronesian nonprofits in Hawaii are a huge help toward this goal. Just this past August, with funding from the Department of the Interior, We Are Oceania opened a one-stop resource center for Micronesian immigrants that addressed needs in housing, employment, health care and legal documentation. Such streamlined processes are crucial to overcoming language, transportation and cost barriers.

But these important steps forward are still fragile, and it’s in Hawaii’s best interest to support them to ensure they reach their full potential.

While Gov. David Ige says that his administration has stepped up outreach to Micronesian organizations in Hawaii, he also admitted that the state does not have a plan to deal with increasing COFA costs and immigration.

His recent homelessness declaration includes an all-hands-on-deck effort to deal with the particular problem of homeless Micronesians — and there are hundreds in Hawaii — but his administration must be more pro-active in addressing COFA immigrants needs before they fall into homelessness.

The responsibility is not Ige’s alone, however.

With roughly 20 percent of Honolulu’s homeless population coming from COFA nations, this is also clearly an issue that the city and Mayor Kirk Caldwell should be out in front of.

By cooperating with and supporting outreach efforts in meaningful ways, both the state and local governments could better leverage limited resources and make a dent in the intractable and costly problems of health care, employment and housing among Micronesians in Hawaii.

For too long there has been a diffusion of responsibility among the city, the state and the federal government. With only eight years left before the funding stops, it’s high time we all collectively stepped up to the plate.

Read Civil Beat’s series, “The Micronesians: An Untold Story of American Immigration.”

About the Author