U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii is calling on the federal government to fully reimburse Hawaii for the cost of providing nearly $200 million annually in public services to migrants from Micronesia.

The development is in response to rising numbers of immigrants from the Marshall Islands, Chuuk and other states and nations, and the costs that places like Hawaii incur to support them.

Under the treaties known as the Compacts of Free Association, citizens from three Micronesian nations are allowed visa-free travel to the U.S. and its territories.

But, even as the new arrivals contribute to their new homes and become part of local communities, the costs to support some of them with education, health and social services are also on the rise.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case wants the federal government to fully cover the costs of COFA migrants in Hawaii. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Case’s letter, released Wednesday, calls the local costs disproportionate and growing.

In the Nov. 22 letter to the U.S. secretaries of the Defense, State and the Interior, Case — along with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Guam Delegate Michael San Nicolas and Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Delegate Gregorio Sablan — calls for the U.S. to “explicitly address full and adequate” compact aid to all “disproportionately affected jurisdictions.”

Case and his colleagues argue that the funding must be part of the upcoming renegotiations of the COFA agreements, which partly expire in 2023 and 2024 unless agreed to by the U.S. and COFA nations and extended by Congress. The nations are the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau.

The letter concludes, “Without corresponding increases of guaranteed federal assistance to fully reimburse our jurisdictions being included as part and parcel of the Congressional Compact extension approval process, we will find it difficult to support Compact renewal.”

Micronesia is a region to the west of Polynesia in the Pacific. The Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands are independent nations within that region. 

Case’s letter says that Hawaii’s estimated costs for primarily health and education were about $198 million in fiscal year 2018.

That figure is a significant jump from the $163 million Hawaii spent to help COFA migrants in 2014, according to Civil Beat’s reporting. The amount of so-called compact impact aid that Hawaii is reimbursed by the federal government in 2019 for those costs is just $14.8 million. It was $11 million in 2014.

It’s not just Hawaii that is impacted. Guam reported spending more than $147 million in 2017 to aid its COFA population, though its federal payout was only $16.8 million in 2019. To a lesser extent, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa also depend on compact-impact aid.

“In short, the actual impact of the Compacts on our jurisdictions far exceeds existing federal assistance – and that gap is growing and can only be expected to continue to grow,” Case said in a press release. “As a result, our state and territorial governments bear a disproportionate responsibility for the Compacts in the form of the significant and growing financial costs associated with FAS migrants.”

FAS stands for freely associated states, meaning the RMI, the FSM and Palau.

While estimates are not precise, Case cites U.S. Census data showing that the COFA migrant population from the RMI and the FSM in the U.S. in 2003 was 20,000, most of them in Hawaii and Guam. The 2018 figure is 38,000.

It’s not clear how much influence Case and Gabbard, who is leaving Congress, and the nonvoting representatives from Guam and the Northern Marianas would have in pressuring the U.S. government. Past efforts by the same delegations to increase compact impact aid were not successful.

What’s different now, however, is that the U.S. has begun the process of COFA renegotiations, given the looming deadlines but also growing influence of China in the Pacific region.

The COFA treaties give the U.S. total strategic military control over the RMI, FSM and Palau — something that continues beyond 2023 even as U.S. funding for the region is scheduled to end.

Read Case’s letter below:

Civil Beat reporter Anita Hofschneider contributed reporting to this story.

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