Last week, Charity Joel took off a day of work from her job at a nonprofit in Kalihi to renew her driver’s license.
But when she got to the counter at the Dillingham city hall, she was told that she can’t — even though she is a legal resident of Honolulu and has been living here for the past 19 years.
Hawaii has started implementing new guidelines from President Donald Trump’s administration interpreting how the newly revised federal REAL ID Act affects certain Pacific Islanders who are present in the U.S. legally and indefinitely.
People from three nations in Micronesia, including the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, can migrate freely to the U.S. under the Compact for Free Association, a treaty that gives strategic control of the area to the U.S. military.
The new guidelines follow a December amendment to the federal law that was intended to ensure the COFA community could receive eight-year driver’s licenses. Their immigration status was missing from the 2005 REAL ID Act, blocking them from receiving normal driver’s licenses and forcing them to have to renew their licenses and state IDs annually. Some members of Congress said they wanted to fix the technicality that was making it hard for people to work and obtain housing.
But the Department of Homeland Security‘s interpretation of those rules have had the opposite effect — instead of getting one-year licenses and state IDs that are compliant with the REAL ID Act, now most citizens of COFA nations are not eligible for any state ID. The only driver’s license they can get are limited-purpose cards that can’t be used to travel or enter federal buildings.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said limited-purpose cards must be renewed annually.
The new rules sparked confusion and frustration last week as Hawaii residents seeking to renew their licenses or obtain state IDs got turned away.
Sen. Mazie Hirono said in a statement Sunday that the DHS guidelines contradict Congress’ intent.
“I am concerned that the Trump administration is ignoring the spirit of the law and making it unnecessarily difficult for COFA citizens to get the IDs and driver’s licenses they need to live and work in this country,” she said. “Everyone deserves equitable access to identification, and I will continue to explore all avenues to force the administration to comply with the letter and intent of the law.”
Advocates for Micronesians say the new guidelines and Hawaii’s implementation of them are the latest example of institutional discrimination against a vulnerable minority community. The community was cut off from Medicaid and other public programs through the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and nearly half of Hawaii’s Marshallese residents live below the poverty line.
“It’s so outrageous,” says Dina Shek, a law professor at the University of Hawaii.
Josie Howard, a citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia who has been living in Hawaii for three decades, leads the social service organization We Are Oceania in Kalihi. She said Saturday that she has heard stories about Micronesians on Guam being similarly denied licenses and state IDs due to the new federal guidelines. It’s unclear how many other states have implemented it.
“It’s crazy to me because there is no visa so why are you asking for it?” — Tatjana Johnson, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for an interview Friday.
Hawaii Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige sent an email Saturday saying, “HDOT understands the difficulties this documentation requirement presents for COFA residents seeking a state issued REAL ID driver’s license or state ID and appreciates the work the community has done to share these requirements.”
The new DHS guidelines require non-U.S. citizens to present visas or employment authorization documents in order to receive driver’s licenses or state IDs that are compliant with the REAL ID Act.
The problem is that most, like Joel, don’t have a visa or an employment authorization document because they don’t need them to be present in the U.S. under the COFA treaty.
“It’s crazy to me because there is no visa so why are you asking for it?” says Tatjana Johnson, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. “It just doesn’t apply.”
She says it makes no sense to prevent citizens from Micronesian nations who are here legally from getting driver’s licenses and state IDs.
Citizens of COFA nations can apply for employment authorization documents without paying any fees, but those can take six months to arrive. She’s worried that in the meantime, Pacific Islanders who work at the airport or other places where a federally approved ID is required could lose their jobs.
According to Kunishige at the Hawaii DOT, the state learned about the new rules in April, and the homeland security agency confirmed that visas or employment authorization documents are now necessary to receive any REAL ID-compliant IDs that are marked with a star.
Sheri Kajiwara, director of the Honolulu Department of Customer Services, was surprised by the new federal guidelines and confused about who it would apply to.
Even without visas or employment authorization documents, citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia are still eligible for a limited-purpose driver’s license, the same kind that are used by people who are undocumented citizens, Kajiwara said in a phone interview Friday.
But there is no equivalent for a state ID. A bill to allow Hawaii residents to get limited purpose state IDs is waiting for the governor’s signature.
Clarification: A previous version of this story said a bill in the Legislature to allow COFA citizens to get IDs died without a hearing this year. While that’s correct, a separate bill to allow all residents to get limited-purpose state IDs did pass.
And some driver’s license applicants like Joel have still been turned away without being informed of the limited purpose option.
“I’m not really sure that we have all our pieces in place,” Kajiwara acknowledged. “It’s a lot to learn and understand and a lot of people are struggling with it.”
She said the city is researching how many people’s licenses will be expiring within the next year. She has heard concerns from the public about the swift implementation of the new rules and says they’re valid but said, “we cannot decline to put it in effect if DOT tells us to.”
The latest rules from DHS stem from the REAL ID Act that Congress passed in 2005 that tightened restrictions for receiving state and federal identification cards.
The law signed by former President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 actually said it would apply to residents of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, the precursor to the COFA that no longer existed by 1995.
Congress’ mistake led Oregon to adopt a new law allowing citizens of COFA nations to get drivers’ licenses. Advocates pushed for Hawaii to adopt similar legislation, but Gov. David Ige’s administration said Congress, not the state, needed to change the law. State officials were concerned that passing a similar law would jeopardize Hawaii’s REAL ID compliance — Oregon is not yet compliant with the law while Hawaii is.
A bipartisan group of Congress members including Hirono and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard proposed an amendment to the REAL ID Act last year to ensure COFA citizens would be eligible for driver’s licenses and ID cards good for eight years.
The bill passed Congress and Trump signed it into law in December.
Johnson from Legal Aid is considering challenging the policy. But she also wonders why the state accepted the new rules when, in her perspective, they are at odds with both federal law and legislative intent.
Johnson says people had no warning or ability to prepare for the new policy because the change happened with no public education.
Shek from the University of Hawaii also finds the state’s actions troubling.
“I’m especially upset that our Hawaii administrators and leaders would choose to take such a narrow view and create these roadblocks for our community members who have lived here for decades,” she said. “Hawaii should know better. We should know better.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?