Sen. Mazie Hirono has introduced a bill in Congress that would allow Pacific Islanders from nations that have treaties with the United States to receive food stamps and other federal benefits that had been denied the migrant communities for decades.

Hirono’s legislative effort comes after the coronavirus pandemic exposed disparities affecting thousands of Pacific Islanders who are legally living in the United States under Compacts of Free Association.

Citizens from the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia haven’t been able to access safety net programs available to other legal, long-term residents since losing access to the benefits in what is considered an unintended consequence of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.

“This is really acknowledging the responsibility that our country has under the compacts: the responsibility to treat these compact citizens who live in our country fairly,” Hirono said in a telephone interview.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono introduced legislation that restores thousands of Pacific Islander migrants’ eligibility for federal safety net benefits, reversing one consequence of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

The lack of assistance has hit the communities hard in recent crises, including Super Typhoon Yutu disaster victims who found they weren’t eligible for federal disaster relief in 2018 or families who lost loved ones to the coronavirus who learned this year they can’t apply for federal reimbursements for funeral costs.

Former President Donald Trump and Congress restored the access to Medicaid in December as non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, but they remained blocked from accessing a range of federal safety net programs including but not limited to food stamps and disaster assistance.

Hirono’s bill, which was filed Thursday, would restore COFA citizens’ eligibility for food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Social Services Block Grants and other programs.

The COFA treaties, which were first signed by former President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War, allow citizens of the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia to move to the U.S. without visas or time limits. For decades, citizens of those nations have been living, working and going to school in U.S. states and territories.

The agreements ensure that the U.S. maintains military control over a huge swath of the western Pacific. Including the Mariana Islands archipelago, the area is roughly equivalent to the size of the entire mainland.

Democratic Rep. Ed Case and Republican Rep. Steve Womack are expected to introduce a companion measure to Hirono’s bill on Friday.

Case said in a press release that he believes there’s no reason federal law should distinguish between citizens of freely associated states and other legal resident non-citizens.

“(Freely associated states’) citizens are important members of our communities that contribute to our economies and deserve the same support from our federal government,” he said.

Womack noted that COFA citizens support U.S. defense efforts and pay taxes. “By instituting another technical fix, we are restoring access to the care and services they are entitled to and upholding our commitments to critical security partners,” he said.

During a virtual talk story event held Thursday by the U.S. State Department, Rep. Kai Kahele of Hawaii also praised the bill and noted that the U.S. conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958.

“This is the least that the United States can do after the nuclear testing that we performed in the freely associated states, and it’s one of the factors in the Pacific diaspora,” he said. “Pacific Islanders have contributed significantly to U.S. security and prosperity but historically this population has been overlooked and treated unfairly.”

“Given the current security environment and China’s activities in the Indo-Pacific, I think this region is finally getting the attention it deserves,” he added.

Dina Shek, a longtime advocate for the COFA community in Hawaii who leads the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii, said that the measure would be a huge help to the Pacific Islander community.

She noted that a review of the legislative history shows the community was left out of the Welfare Reform Act accidentally.

“Nobody was advocating, nobody even thought about their status,” she said. “It’s a huge example of how because they were forgotten, their legal status was completely not addressed in the law … (causing) them to be excluded from the law and that just caused so many problems.”

Shek said the bill reflects how Pacific Islanders are contributing to their communities in the U.S. and are not just temporary residents.

“You just cannot forget all the contributions that folks have made, not just the homeland sacrifices but the contributions that they make in their adopted states, which are huge,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”

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