The Federated States of Micronesia will again vote to change its constitution to allow dual citizenship, sparking a debate over whether such a move would help or hurt families living outside the nation retain ancestral land ownership.

It has been almost two years since constitutional delegates convened in January 2020 but the constitutional convention was cut short by a recess on March 13, 2020 in response to the pandemic. Delegates were to reconvene once the pandemic was under control. But the convention still has not been scheduled, with delegates outside the FSM facing travel interruptions from Covid-19 protocols and no provision for virtual meetings.

Former FSM Vice President of Redley Killion said he believed there was an “outcry for change” in the citizenship laws, especially in the country’s ever-growing diaspora. The country has voted twice, in 2005 and 2017, to keep the status quo.

The Federated States of Micronesia are spread across Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk and Yap, and the distance is posing an issue for the resumption of the Constitutional Convention. 

Killion, who is president of the constitutional convention, said past votes failed on narrow margins because of a lack of education and public consultation. He said he is optimistic about the next vote.

There are several Micronesian communities around the U.S. and 16,680 Micronesians — from the FSM, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Palau — living in Hawaii. The three countries share Compacts of Free Association with the U.S., but the FSM is the only nation prohibiting dual citizenship.

It Comes Down To Land

Much of the debate over dual citizenship is intertwined with tensions over customary lands.

“The land defines us, we are very connected to the land,” Jocelyn Howard, CEO of We Are Oceania, said. “It’s part of our being. I think that’s shared among indigenous communities.”

Some are concerned that, if dual citizenship is allowed, foreigners might come to the FSM and buy up land.

But Killion believes the dual citizenship amendment would allow those who have moved outside the country to retain their interests in customary lands.

As it stands, Micronesians move to the U.S. and other nations, start lives and careers and eventually have families. Because dual citizenship is not allowed, their children must choose between their parents’ country or the one they were born in. Choosing the latter means forfeiting land rights.

Josie Howard portrait We Are Oceanie.
Jocelyn Howard leads the nonprofit We Are Oceania, which helps migrants from the Micronesian region succeed in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“Of course, once they’re out … without changing the constitutional mandate, you will not be able to pass that on,” Killion said. “Our citizens, our people here, don’t really grasp that.”

As for the question of foreigners buying up ancestral lands, he said, the interest in naturalization is negligible and the FSM only had a few cases in the past few years.

Micronesian, Home And Away

Despite having lived in the U.S. for a long time and raising a family in California and Hawaii, Vidalino Raatior understands the fear of ancestral lands being lost. But the constitution was drafted in 1975, 10 years before the compact was signed with the U.S., at a time when the population was expanding and the idea of many people leaving the country was not on the horizon.

The FSM’s population rapidly expanded after World War II, but slowed significantly after 1986, as Micronesians moved to the U.S. under the free association rules.

“I’ve continued to retain my FSM citizenship but I’ve continued to struggle with it,” Raatior said. Even when former president Donald Trump was ramping up his anti-immigrant messaging, Raatior chose not to pursue U.S. citizenship at the cost of giving up his FSM citizenship. “I can’t do it,” he said. “I simply can’t do it because it speaks to the depth of my love for my own country and my people.”

But Raatior’s children, who are 15 and 11, will have to make a decision about their future when they turn 18 if the proposed amendment is not passed.

The constitution gives foreign-born Micronesians just three months after they turn 18 to confirm their FSM citizenship. If they forfeit it, they lose their right to ancestral lands and, in the eyes of the diaspora, their cultural connection with the Pacific nation. Raatior’s children will likely forfeit their FSM citizenship in favor of the benefits of being an American.

“I think that there’s going to continue to be a brain drain on the country if we don’t address this,” Raatior said. “These are potential Micronesian citizens, not part of our country, because they are forced to retain or to claim U.S. citizenship over our country.”

And for some in the diaspora, it is not a deliberate decision, because many do not understand the current constitutional regulations allowing only single citizenship.

Howard, who is from Chuuk, is concerned any future votes will replay past referendums: the diaspora will not get to have a say.

Howard also questioned past referendums’ accuracy, noting that they were rushed.

“I’m worried that will be the situation,” Howard said. “I think this time, if we have enough time, if they give us enough time, that will be the decider.”

James Naich, former FSM ambassador to the U.S. and convention delegate, believes that with a growing diaspora, the FSM should welcome non-citizens of Micronesian descent who want the best of both worlds: Connection to their ancestral homelands and their new countries.

The Federated States of Micronesia is going to vote on dual citizenship, having previously twice rejected it. Wikimedia Commons

The mentality among young Micronesians abroad, Naitch said, can be boiled down to, “I want to have the best of both worlds, to be a U.S. citizen so that I can have access to the U.S. assistance and at the same time, I hold onto my culture, far, far, far away on some Pacific islands.”

Naich, a long-time proponent of dual citizenship, believes the FSM is now ready to change its constitution almost 50 years after it was first written.

Though delegates were supposed to gather again in October, there has been little progress in resuming the decennial constitutional convention.

Congress went into session to bring on a new member on Monday, which leaves no space for the delegation to resume its work. And, with some delegates out of the country, Pacific travel problems and costs remain.

Convention President Killion said delegates voted against the idea of convening virtually.

“I am for making good use of public funds. But there’s certain things that you cannot control — one of which is, of course, transportation,” Killion said, adding that he had been quoted a $40,000 cost for a chartered flight from Yap to Chuuk. “We’re hoping that we do it before the end of the year. But we’re now mid-November. Things are getting tough.”

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