On Oct. 11, Melisa Laelan and her husband left Springdale, Arkansas, around 5 p.m. to drive a van of six Marshallese citizens more than 750 miles to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The drive took about 12 hours. Once they reached the border, the group disembarked to walk across a bridge to Mexico on foot. Then they promptly turned around to re-enter through the U.S. checkpoint, and drove straight back to Springdale.

But their mission had succeeded — her clients, citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands had fresh I-94 forms, immigration documents that are essential to living and working in the U.S.

Pacific Islanders from Palau, the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia must often go to extreme lengths to replace critical immigration documents to prove that they are legally present in the U.S. They are able to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely under strategic military agreements that give the U.S. control over much of the western Pacific Ocean.

But although tens of thousands are in the U.S. legally, many can’t get jobs, housing, a driver’s license or even health insurance without an I-94.

Honolulu International airport US Customs Border Protection sign. 14 sept 2016
Though Pacific Islanders from Micronesia can legally live and work in the U.S., they often have to go to extreme lengths to replace their immigration documents because they are restricted from accessing those records online after five years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Some who moved to the U.S. decades ago misplaced their forms in the intervening years, and others simply didn’t realize their importance. Some who arrived as infants didn’t receive an I-94 card at all, and others who arrived after 2013 entered an online system that they are blocked from accessing after five years.

Tips To Avoid I-94 Problems

In Hawaii, missing I-94 forms are contributing to joblessness and homelessness among Pacific Islander families.

“Without an I-94 we cannot get any of the opportunities we came here for,” says Josie Howard, executive director of We Are Oceania, who moved to Hawaii from the Federated States in Micronesia three decades ago. “We cannot get a Social Security card, we cannot get a state ID card, we cannot establish ourselves to be able to function in America.”

A $445 replacement price tag and months-long wait times are forcing people to get creative. Residents of Texas, Arizona, Oregon and even Hawaii are literally leaving the country to get a free I-94 at the border because it’s quicker and often cheaper than the alternative.

A new online system for storing I-94 data is complicating the issue. Hawaii attorneys say they’re starting to see clients who entered the U.S. after the online system was in place who didn’t receive paper forms, and suddenly can’t prove that they’re legal residents because they didn’t realize their records would be inaccessible after five years.

Dina Shek, executive director of the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii, doesn’t understand why it costs $445 to make a record available again in the electronic system — or why access is blocked in the first place.

“It’s just absurd that you would lock it up,” she says.

A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection didn’t respond to an inquiry about the reason for the five-year limit last week.

Shek compared the situation to recent federal guidelines in April that required migrants to have visas or employment documents that most don’t have to get federally compliant driver’s licenses. The move caused confusion and public outcry and the guidance was rescinded last month in the wake of political pressure.

“I think it just is another absurd problem,” Shek said.

A Familiar Journey

The drive to the border and back is a familiar voyage for Laelan. Her nonprofit, Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, plans the trip every month. Participants sign waivers acknowledging the risks and answer a questionnaire ensuring they don’t have any criminal record that could block their ability to re-enter the U.S. They pay $200 each to cover the costs of food and gas and two drivers.

Night time crossing at the international border between the United States and Mexico with long lines of vehicle traffic waiting to get through to the other side.
Many Micronesian migrants are forced to cross into Mexico at boarding crossings like this one between El Paso and Juarez to get their immigration documents for free and in a timely fashion. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The van is almost always full, except around the holidays. Some trips have included as many as 15 people.

“It’s a much-needed service,” says Laelan. “Marshallese move to the U.S. to live, go to school, go to work. You cannot do any of those except breathing if you don’t have that I-94.”

There have been a couple of close calls. Now, she requires participants to show her their passports so she can make sure they’re not expired. She urges them to be honest about any criminal history. Once, she worked with a migrant’s parole officer to ensure that they’d be let back into the country.

The I-94 form is given to all travelers who enter the U.S., but most also have visas or green cards. For migrants from Palau, the Marshall Islands and FSM, the document is their only proof of legal presence. Even if you have the money for a replacement, it can take months to get a copy, and “sometimes you never see it,” adds Laelan.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection switched to an online system in April 2013 for I-94 forms for air and sea arrivals. Since 2014, people can access their I-94 information online and print a copy. But access is blocked after five years, a time limit many are only just discovering.

Every week Kandhi Eleisar hears about another person struggling to replace their I-94. The consul general for the Federated States of Micronesia in Honolulu says even if they have the money, many need help filling out the application for a replacement.

Joe Enlet, the consul general for the Federated States of Micronesia in Portland, Oregon, knows FSM citizens living in Oregon who have driven up to Canada and sought to get new I-94 forms upon re-entry into the U.S., although that tactic hasn’t always been successful.

“I just don’t think it should be this hard,” Enlet says.

Increasing Homelessness

People from Micronesia aren’t the only ones frustrated by a lack of an I-94. Service providers in Hawaii who are trying to house people living on the streets or prevent homelessness frequently find themselves stymied by this missing document and the challenges of replacing one.

There’s no doubt to Sam Church, executive director Family Promise Hawaii, that the cost of replacing I-94 cards worsens homelessness in Hawaii. She’s had Pacific Islander clients who weren’t able to get jobs because of a missing I-94 and ended up in her homeless shelter. She’s also had clients who weren’t able to get a replacement I-94 in time to secure a coveted housing unit. Rental subsidy programs also sometimes require them as proof of legal presence.

“It’s a huge barrier,” says Church, who works with families who are homeless  for economic reasons. “Sometimes your funding is on a stream where you have to spend it down in a certain time and if it takes multiple months to get an I-94 replacement then the family might lose that (housing) opportunity.”

Missing identification documents are common for many people experiencing homelessness who don’t have a steady place to store important items. But it’s a lot easier to help someone who is a U.S. citizen regain identification. Social Security replacement cards are free and birth certificates often are as well, says Church. Even legal permanent residents who need another green card can apply for a fee waiver.

Even if an I-94 form is obtained, problems remain. Laelan from Arkansas says some clients have a new passport that doesn’t match the number on their I-94 form. When employers run their information through the federal e-verification system to confirm their legal presence, Laelan says some aren’t approved even though it is legal for them to work in the U.S.

Creative Solutions

Tatjana Johnson, an immigration attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, says adding an I-94 replacement to the list of documents eligible for a fee waiver could make a big difference for her clients.

The high cost has forced her to get creative. She’s ended up using public records requests to access copies of the immigration documents for some clients who can’t afford the fee.

But not everyone knows that’s an option. Elian Elias came to Hawaii from the Federated States of Micronesia when she was just 9 years old. Her family moved around frequently and by the time she was an adult, she didn’t know where her I-94 card was.

“Marshallese move to the US to live, go to school, go to work. You cannot do any of those except breathing if you don’t have that I-94.”

The Kalihi resident wanted to get her general education diploma, or the equivalent of a high school degree, but says she was told she couldn’t sign up for the course without an I-94. She wanted to get a job but she couldn’t do that either. She couldn’t find proof of her document on the Customs and Border Protection website and couldn’t afford to replace the card anyway.

Then her cousin in Texas offered to pay for her flight to Dallas and drive her down to the U.S.-Mexico border. It was an exhausting, whirlwind trip — Elias went straight from the plane to the car, drove down, got the document and headed straight back to Hawaii.

Between sitting in plane and car and the fear of crossing the border, “that was like the most painful two days in my life,” she says.

She still hasn’t been able to afford the GED course but is glad she can finally get a job in the food service industry.

“I’ve been focusing on working for now to help my sister with bills and rent,” she said. “Then I’m going to go back to work and school.” She wants to be a nurse one day.

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