Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero wants federal officials to pause migration from three Pacific nations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The countries — Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia — have no known cases of the coronavirus as of this week. But Leon Guerrero is worried that the nations might have cases that haven’t been diagnosed yet, and doesn’t want Guam to have to pay for quarantining any migrants who might arrive.

In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence on April 6, Leon Guerrero noted that schools are closed on Guam currently and there are no job openings. She asked Pence to institute screening measures to prevent migrants from coming to Guam, and confirmed in an interview with Civil Beat Thursday that she would like migration to be paused.

“For the life of the Compacts, Guam has become home for many FAS citizens seeking to improve their futures but in times of a public health emergency, migration limits must be enforced by the U.S. government,” wrote Leon Guerrero, a Democrat.

FAS refers to the freely associated states, a term that describes Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia and their political relationship with the U.S.

Guam Airport chamorro oxen cart in the duty free shop. 23 aug 2016
This statue of a carabao in the Guam airport is a symbol of the Chamorro culture. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Leon Guerrero wrote that some freely associated states had closed their borders, preventing some citizens from returning back home. The Federated States of Micronesia last month banned inbound travel and requires people who want to leave the country to get special permission from the government, Radio New Zealand reported. The Marshall Islands has also banned international arrivals.

Leon Guerrero told Civil Beat that she hasn’t gotten a response to her letter from the federal government but that she has heard assurances from the heads of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia that they are limiting travel and working to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The governor said she hasn’t sent any similar requests regarding migration or arrivals from the Philippines, Japan or other nations where the virus is widespread and doesn’t plan to do so. All arrivals to Guam are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

The territory has more than 140 confirmed COVID-19 cases with a population of about 165,000 residents. It is also hosting a Navy ship with more than 800 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Leon Guerrero’s efforts are part of a broader pushback against immigration in the coronavirus era. Just this week, President Donald Trump has signed a new executive order barring some new immigration to the U.S. by preventing people living abroad from applying for green cards.

U.S. Names Compact Negotiators

The governor’s request comes as the U.S. is in the midst of renegotiating key treaties that give the U.S. military strategic power over the air and waters surrounding Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Just this week, the U.S. announced its appointment of Karen Stewart, former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Douglas Domenech, assistant secretary for Insular & International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior, as the U.S. negotiators.

The U.S. is keen to maintain control over the region; its proximity to Asia makes it critical to national security interests. The New York Times reported this week that U.S. warships sailed into the South China Sea amid growing tensions with China.

Domenech has previously said that he wants to renew the agreements with each nation this year. The financial aspects of the treaties will expire in 2023 and 2024. He told Civil Beat last year that ideally the U.S. would like to extend the compacts in their current form for another 20 years.

The strategic agreements with each nation allow their citizens to live and work in the U.S. and vice versa. Thousands have come for jobs, school and life-saving medical care, and Guam is often a necessary stop on the way to Hawaii and the continent.

Leon Guerrero’s letter isn’t the first time that state and territory officials have tried to get the U.S. to crack down on migration from the Pacific nations. In 2011, Hawaii’s congressional delegation urged the federal government to impose migration limits. 

Flights Already Cancelled

The question of migration during the pandemic is to some extent moot, at least for now, as many flights across the Pacific have been canceled.

Vic April, the consul general for Palau on Guam, said Thursday that far from encouraging migration to Guam, the government of Palau is actually trying to get people to come home.

“Palau is actually encouraging people from off island to come back to Palau,” he said. “They’re not flying out anybody from Palau to Guam during this crisis.”

Palau is in the process of negotiating with United Airlines to get a charter flight to bring Palauan citizens back, April said.

Radio New Zealand reported Thursday that Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Casten Nemra said Leon Guerrero’s proposal to screen migrants “is not a good consideration” and that the country is “always open to dialogue to find feasible solutions.”

Leon Guerrero told Civil Beat that the assurances from each nation she received helped assuage her concerns. She doesn’t expect to hear back from Pence.

“I’m not hoping much from the response from the federal government. It’s been over three weeks and they haven’t responded,” she said.

She’s less concerned now that she was previously but still would like migration to be paused. “Because the flights have been cancelled and there are no flights going from Guam in and out from the islands, that has not been a problem for us,” she said.

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