Thousands of citizens of three Micronesian nations can now get federally approved driver’s licenses in the U.S., reversing a policy change four months ago that caused widespread confusion and pushback from Pacific Islander communities in Hawaii.

The Trump administration in late April issued guidelines that made it much tougher for most immigrants from three Pacific Island nations to get a federally approved license. Under that policy, citizens of the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia had to apply for visas or employment authorization documents in order to qualify.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to publish in the Federal Register Wednesday that citizens of those Pacific island nations will now need only a valid foreign passport and Form I-94 to obtain REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses in the U.S.

Kapalama Driver License Center with scores of people wait their turn as their AlohaQ number pops onto the large display and announced on the PA system.

Honolulu’s driver’s license centers are already notorious for long lines and wait times. Pictured here, scores of people wait at Kapalama Driver’s License Center last week.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Thousands of citizens from Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia live, work and go to school in the U.S. without visas due to unique strategic agreements known as the Compacts of Free Association. The agreements give the U.S. military control over the Pacific nations’ surrounding waters and airspace, a key buffer between Asia and the U.S.

“DHS believes it is appropriate to designate this identity documentation for FAS (Freely Associated States) citizens given the unique relationship between the United States and the FAS and considering that to live and work for indefinite periods, FAS citizens are not required to obtain a visa or EAD, which are documents currently required to establish identity for REAL ID purposes,” the new DHS policy says.

The policy change four months ago effectively blocked thousands of immigrants from those three nations from getting driver’s licenses that were compliant with the REAL ID Act by requiring them to show legal documents that most don’t have.

The Department of Homeland Security says that reversing course is in line with both congressional intent and the spirit of the strategic agreements.

“DHS also believes the designation is consistent with the intent of Congress to facilitate the issuance of REAL ID licenses and identification cards to FAS citizens as demonstrated by enactment of the REAL ID Modification Act,” the new policy says. “This accommodation for FAS citizens also is consistent with the spirit of the COFAs, although it is not required under any provision of the COFAs.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono praised the policy change in a statement to Civil Beat.

“Since the Trump administration first announced its policy, I’ve heard directly from many FAS citizens living and working in Hawaii about the significant and unnecessary financial hardships they faced because of it,” she said. “DHS’s response to our calls to reverse this policy is welcome news for thousands of FAS citizens living in communities across our country.”

Months Of Confusion

As Hawaii implemented the Trump administration’s April guidance, some Honolulu residents were turned away at city driver’s license centers and told they should go to their consul general for visas.

Kandhi Elieisar, consul general for the Federated States of Micronesia in Honolulu, says his office was flooded with requests for assistance.

“It caused tremendous hardship on our people,” he said in a phone interview last week.

“We’re not able to fetch the documents that they need to run their lives,” such as getting or keeping jobs, Elieisar added. That’s because travel between the U.S. and the three Pacific island nations don’t require visas.

Nonprofit organizations like We Are Oceania and the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii held workshops to help people apply for employment authorization documents, which they don’t need in order to work legally but were suddenly necessary to get identification cards.

The wait time can take as long as six months.

Some members of Congress, which had recently passed a law intending to make it easier for citizens of freely associated states to get driver’s licenses, cried foul. Hawaii’s congressional delegation co-authored a letter to DHS explaining that April’s guidance was out of line with congressional intent.

A Small But Consequential Error

The Trump administration’s new rules follow more than a decade of policies that made it hard for citizens from the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands to get federally approved driver’s licenses.

Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005, four years after 9/11, in an effort strengthen security around identification cards. But the law didn’t specify how people from those three Pacific island countries would be affected. Instead, the legislation noted the its applicability to the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, an outdated political status for Micronesian nations that had been defunct since the 1990s.

That mistake caused a decade of frustration for many Pacific Islanders who were legally present in the U.S. In Hawaii, citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia were ineligible for eight-year identification cards and forced to renew their driver’s licenses and state IDs every year.

When Hawaii created a new identification cards in 2016 to help undocumented immigrants, that helped — but the eight-year IDs weren’t compliant with the REAL ID Act. The latter will be necessary to travel and access some federal buildings after the law is fully implemented in October 2020.

Congress finally amended the REAL ID Act last year to clarify that citizens from nations with COFA agreements are eligible for federally compliant IDs. Trump signed the bill into law in December.

But the move seemed to backfire, as Department of Homeland Security‘s interpretation of the law in April — requiring a visa or an employment authorization card — had the opposite effect.

Elieisar said the new policy is a welcome change.

“This is really a positive development,” he said. “We’re hoping to see this finally addressing the current situation that we’re in.”

 

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