The U.S. Congress should amend laws to ensure people who migrated to the U.S. under strategic agreements known as the Compacts of Free Association have access to federally funded social safety nets like Medicaid, the Hawaii Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged in a recent report.

“The Committee heard testimony revealing the social and institutional racism and discrimination endured by the COFA migrants,” the committee wrote in its executive summary. “While much of it is outside the scope of federal protection, there is ample room for federal and state intervention to mitigate the barriers to equal opportunity this migrant group faces.”

The report is based on a study conducted by volunteer committee members between 2015 and 2018 of migrants from Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia in Hawaii. The analysis included a review of research as well as two community meetings where the committee gathered public testimony. The report is dated March 2019 but made public in the last two months with no fanfare.

The Compacts of Free Association are strategic agreements with three Pacific island nations that give the U.S. military control over vast swaths of the western Pacific. The agreements also allow citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia to live and work in the U.S. without visas. But the advisory committee found a combination of public policies and prejudice have made it difficult for many migrants to get driver’s licenses, access healthcare or even succeed in school.

“The legal framework in the United States protects lawful residents from a denial of equal access to official benefits and services,” the report continues. “The federal government and the state of Hawaii have obligations to deliver social service support to this migrant group, lawfully residing in the United States.”

Josie Howard from We Are Oceania assists COFA citizens enroll in health care.
Josie Howard from We Are Oceania assists people from Palau, the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia with enrolling in health care insurance in December 2018 in Kalihi. Most low-income adult migrants are no longer eligible for Medicaid. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The advisory committee notes that although Hawaii’s congressional delegation has introduced multiple pieces of legislation relating to COFA migrants, only one bill has passed. The report notes that the lack of federal funding for social services in this community has led to higher costs at the state and local levels and Micronesians are often stereotyped as a burden.

Josie Howard, the executive director of the social service organization We Are Oceania in Honolulu, said she’s grateful to the advisory committee for the report, adding that any effort to improve awareness of the COFA migrant community and the relationship between COFA nations and the U.S. is encouraging.

Paying Taxes But Excluded From Services

The report describes varied stories of discrimination both at the individual and institutional levels. In a 2018 hearing, Greg Edmond, a COFA migrant, testified that as a fifth grader, his teacher was surprised he could read, and he stopped taking the school bus because other students didn’t want to sit beside “dirty” COFA kids.

As an adult, he said he couldn’t get health insurance through his employer and he was also denied access to Medicaid because of his citizenship status.

“Then why am I paying medical taxes if I’m not allowed to have that?” he asked the committee. “Shouldn’t they take that out of my paycheck? Because it’s my money. I’m working for it. So that was one of the things I didn’t understand. I’m paying medical taxes and yet I’m not qualified to get Medicaid.”

The report describes the significance of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that cut COFA migrants off from key federal benefits such as food stamps and effectively shifted the responsibility for funding those safety nets to states and territories.

State and territory governments have been frustrated that their expenses on social services for COFA migrants far exceed federal reimbursements. Spending by the state of Hawaii on human services — including health care subsidies for low-income COFA migrants, which was previously covered by the federal government — was about $67 million in 2014, according to the latest available data posted by the Department of the Interior.

The advisory committee report breaks down COFA migrants’ eligibility for federal safety new programs. 

Neal Palafox, a local physician who has worked with the Micronesian community, testified at the 2018 committee briefing that the removal of COFA migrants from state and federal Medicaid was a “blatant way of saying it’s OK to discriminate against these folks.”

“There is widespread negative public perception of COFA migrants in Hawaii,” the advisory committee notes in its conclusion. “This group continues to be scapegoated as a drain on resources, particularly in healthcare. COFA migrants also face discrimination in access to housing and employment.”

‘A Governmental Responsibility’

Amy Agbayani, a member of the advisory committee that produced the report, says she hopes the findings help educate both local people and state, local and federal officials who make policy. 

“It’s important the local community understand that …  the community here has the right to be here but they don’t have many benefits that other residents of the state have in terms of access to government services and even opportunities to support their families,” she said. 

Sergio Alcubilla, spokesman for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, says that the nonprofit plans to use the report to help inform a planned documentary about the needs and contributions of Micronesians in Hawaii. Legal Aid’s executive director is the chairwoman of the advisory committee that produced the report but was unavailable for comment Monday.

Wide view of the Capitol Auditorium of sparsely attended Panel 1 of the Hawaii Advisory Committee to US Commission on Civil Rights, public meeting on Micronesian immigration issues. 20 aug 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearing on Micronesians in 2015 at the Hawaii State Capitol was sparsely attended. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The video would be used as a community educational tool to have a dialogue going,” he said. “Our hope was really to educate the community more about COFA and their contributions to Hawaii and some of the legal issues they’re facing now.”

But Agbayani hopes that policymakers in particular are paying attention.

“Our government leaders have to help address these problems,” she said. “It is a governmental responsibility at all levels to help.”

The committee recommends the U.S. Civil Rights Commission forward the report to U.S. House and Senate leadership and recommends that Congress restore migrants’ eligibility for Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and Supplemental Security Income.

The committee also wants the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to share the report with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and request a review of Section 8 practices in Hawaii as they relate to COFA migrants and publish materials on consumer housing rights in Pacific Islander languages.

The committee recommended the report also be sent to the U.S. Department of the Interior; U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Health and Human Services and other agencies.

Click here to read the full report.

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