Over the last 30 years, tens of thousands of Micronesians have left their island homes and relocated to the United States.
By some counts, at least 30 percent of the population of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia have migrated, many to Hawaii and Guam. Thousands have found new lives in places that couldn’t be more different from the atolls of the Pacific, like Springdale, Arkansas, and Portland, Oregon.
This exodus is an important untold story of American immigration, a very different side of the debate that is penetrating political campaigns and fueling public discourse. While most Americans know about the millions of undocumented immigrants that have come to this country primarily from Mexico and other Latin America nations, relatively few know anything about the Micronesians who, under a 1986 treaty, can immigrate to the U.S. legally and without restriction.
The legacy of 67 nuclear tests the U.S. conducted in the Marshall Islands at the dawn of the Cold War endures in high cancer rates, stillborn fetuses, sterility and birth defects. Micronesians are coming to the U.S. for health care and other services America promised.
But they are also coming for education and jobs as the economies of the treaty nations — largely dependent on federal aid — deteriorate and face potential collapse as soon as 2023 when U.S. aid expires. The exodus and the burden on U.S. states and territories will only get worse.
In Hawaii, we’re already pretty familiar with the influx of these unique immigrants, most of whom have settled comfortably in our communities. But the social and medical costs have been particularly heavy in Hawaii and Guam where a striking number of Micronesians have ended up unemployed and homeless. It’s costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and straining public budgets.
On Wednesday, Civil Beat launches “The Micronesians: An Untold Story of American Immigration,” a multimedia, multi-part series on the Micronesian exodus that has been in the works the better part of a year. Reporter Chad Blair and photographer Mark Edward Harris traveled extensively throughout Micronesia as well as the mainland to document the struggles and successes of Micronesian immigrants. Photographer Cory Lum joined Chad as he visited Micronesian communities on Oahu and the Big Island and explored issues like discrimination, racism and homelessness that are affecting Micronesians here in Hawaii.
The seven-part series will be available in its entirety to subscribers starting Wednesday and to non-subscribers in installments over the next couple weeks. Click here to subscribe.
We hope you spend some time with it. It’s rich with the sights and sounds, the images and voices of a vibrant segment of American life.
And then on Tuesday, Oct. 27, at 6 p.m., we’d like to introduce you in person to a few people who have found new lives here in Hawaii and are helping others to do the same. Join us at the Arts at Marks Garage for our first “Hawaii Storytellers” event, an evening of live storytelling featuring three Micronesian immigrants and our own Chad Blair, who grew up partly on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. We think you’ll find it most interesting. RSVP here.
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Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.