Dozens of people crammed into a Kalihi meeting room Friday to learn more about new federal rules that are blocking many Pacific Islanders from renewing or receiving federally approved driver’s licenses and state identification cards.

The rules continue to generate widespread confusion.

“Our drivers at the DMV are being turned away,” said Gail Sagiao, director of operations at Roberts Hawaii. About half of her company’s school bus drivers are affected by the new policy of the Department of Homeland Security.

The meeting was held at We Are Oceania. The social service organization hosts monthly gatherings to connect agencies and organizations for the Pacific Islander community, but Friday’s was different.

People stood along the sides of the room, in the back and outside to listen to a representative from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

People gather for a workshop on obtaining drivers licenses for COFA migrants at We Are Oceania.
People gather for a workshop on obtaining driver’s licenses for COFA migrants at We Are Oceania. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Many of them were confused about what kinds of driver’s licenses and state IDs they can now get. The new rules say that citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia must have visas or employment authorization documents to get REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and state IDs.

The problem is that most have neither. All three nations have agreements with the U.S. called the Compact of Free Association that allow their citizens to move to American states and territories and live and work indefinitely without visas or employment documents.

The U.S. created the COFA agreements during the Cold War to ensure military control over the western Pacific region, which also served as the site of nuclear bomb testing.

But when the REAL ID Act was passed in 2005, the law cited the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, the precursor to COFA, that had been defunct for a decade. That effectively left COFA citizens in limbo and made them only eligible for REAL ID-compliant licenses that they must renew annually.

Congress amended the law last year, saying that citizens of COFA nations should be eligible for long-term REAL ID-compliant licenses. But it has backfired with the Department of Homeland Security’s interpretation of the document requirements.

The federally approved identification cards will be necessary to travel, enter federal buildings and access federal programs once the REAL ID Act is fully implemented in October 2020.

Some meeting attendees said Friday they have been denied even limited-purpose licenses that are supposed to be available to everyone, even undocumented immigrants. Others have been able to renew their licenses with no problems and don’t understand why they could and others can’t.

Hainrick Panuelo looks at information sheets at Friday’s meeting. He has served in the U.S. Army for more than two decades. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Some said employees at county driver’s license offices have referred them to their consul general’s office, USCIS and even We Are Oceania to get the necessary documents.

“People are going and being denied and not knowing what to do,” said Tatjana Johnson, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. She said Legal Aid is planning to host community workshops on documentation for COFA citizens starting June 1.

Kehau Yap, a representative for Sen. Mazie Hirono, told meeting attendees that Hirono was on a heated call with federal officials about the problems Friday morning. Yap urged community members to share their stories.

“In D.C. they don’t see the faces, they don’t hear the stories, they don’t hear the struggle,” Yap said. “They think, just apply for an EAD, what’s the problem?”

Citizens of COFA nations can apply for free employment authorization documents. But many don’t because they aren’t necessary to work. Now that they’re needed to obtain REAL ID-compliant state IDs and driver’s licenses, many will have to.

There was so much interest at Friday’s meeting that EAD application forms ran out.

“I get worked up, pissed off, frustrated when I witness this kind of treatment.” — Hainrick Panuelo, a Micronesian who serves in the U.S. Army

Kamana Mathur, community relations officer for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, attended the meeting and explained how to apply for an employment authorization document.

Parts of her presentation were hard to hear due to background noise, and it was sometimes difficult to keep up with the technical descriptions as she went through the EAD application form. But nearly every attendee stayed for the full two hours, and many stuck around longer to speak with interpreters in multiple Micronesian languages.

EAD cards can take six months to obtain. Mathur and her colleagues explained that people who need EAD cards more quickly can apply for them to be expedited, but that’s not guaranteed. Mathur doesn’t work at the REAL ID division of DHS, and attendees had many questions that she couldn’t answer.

Hainrick Panuelo from Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia wanted to know how the new rules affect people in in the U.S. military. Panuelo has served in the Army for more than two decades, including stints in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea, and is currently based in Honolulu.

“I get worked up, pissed off, frustrated when I witness this kind of treatment,” Panuelo said at the meeting.

The Honolulu Driver’s Licensing Office did not have a representative at the meeting. Sheri Kajiwara, director of the Honolulu Department of Customer Services that oversees the Driver’s Licensing Office, said in a telephone interview Friday that she notified the branch managers April 25 of the new rules and that staffers have received training.

Kajiwara suspects people who are getting turned away may be going to the city’s satellite driver’s license offices. She said only the city’s five main facilities — Kapalama Hale, Koolau, Kapolei, Wahiawa and Waianae — can issue limited purpose driver’s licenses, which are issued “if you cannot prove that you have the right to be here in the U.S.”

“In D.C. they don’t see the faces, they don’t hear the stories, they don’t hear the struggle.” — Kehau Yap, representative for Sen. Mazie Hirono

There is no equivalent for state IDs, although the Legislature recently passed a bill to allow limited-purpose state IDs and it’s sitting on the governor’s desk.

People who have problems obtaining licenses can email or call the city’s complaint office, Kajiwara said, adding only one complaint has been received so far.

Johnson from the Legal Aid Society suspects people who get rejected at the licensing offices may not know how to complain.

“People are coming to us and that’s fine but it’s really the responsibility of the government agency,” she said.

Howard from We Are Oceania said she was happy to hear that Roberts Hawaii is committed to retaining its Micronesian workforce, but she’s afraid other employers might not.

“My main concern is that a lot of families will be devastated and more people will be homeless, because more people are going to lose their way to support themselves in Hawaii,” Howard said.

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