President Joe Biden’s administration is looking to make it easier for people from Palau, the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia to access documents proving when they entered the United States.

Citizens of these three Pacific nations are allowed to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely without visas under three separate treaties known as the Compacts of Free Association. The international agreements give the U.S. military strategic denial rights over these nations’ surrounding waters and airspace, a huge valuable buffer between Hawaii and China.

But living and working in the U.S. isn’t always easy. It’s becoming increasingly common for employers, schools and landlords to request copies of entry receipts known as I-94 cards that are difficult to replace once lost.

Honolulu International airport US Customs Border Protection sign. 14 sept 2016
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is moving toward expanding access to entry documents for citizens of freely associated states who can work and live in the U.S. indefinitely. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency automatically cuts off online access to these cards after 10 years, and the data hasn’t been accessible online for people who entered prior to April 2012.

That is about to change. The agency plans to update its website this summer to remove the time limit for accessing I-94 cards online, and extend online access for people who entered the country decades ago, an official said.

The change came about due to improvements in technology and advocacy from community members and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono.

“When the updates go into effect, anyone issued an I-94 for duration of status will be able to pull the most recent I-94 going back to 1983 when we started recording them,” said Jody Hardin, the agency’s acting executive director for planning, program analysis and evaluation.

That’s good news to Philios Uruman, who moved to Hawaii when he was 11 years old from Fananu, an outer island in Chuuk, one of four states in the Federated States of Micronesia. He’s now a co-founder of a social service organization called Nohno that helps other migrants like himself succeed in the U.S.

The high cost and difficulty of accessing I-94 cards has been particularly problematic during the coronavirus pandemic since many people lost their jobs and needed to enter their I-94 numbers in order to access unemployment payments, Uruman said.

Dina Shek, executive director of the nonprofit law firm Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii, called the planned updates a game changer and said they’ll “significantly reduce a somewhat mundane but massive barrier for people.”

Push For Access

In 2013, Shek was excited to hear the U.S. Customs and Border Protection started maintaining digitally accessible versions of these documents. But she was frustrated when she later realized the agency cut off access to these documents after five years.

Philios Uruman co-founded the Nohno organization to help COFA migrants like himself. 

In 2019, Civil Beat reported that the difficulty in accessing these documents was pushing citizens of COFA nations to go to extreme lengths to obtain copies.

In one instance, a Kalihi resident who came to the U.S. as a 9-year-old wasn’t able to get her general education diploma because she didn’t know where her I-94 card was. She ended up flying to Texas and traveling across the southern U.S. border into Mexico and back into the U.S. to obtain a job at Cookie Corner on Oahu. A nonprofit group in Arkansas even set up a monthly trip across the southern border and back into the country to help Marshall Islands citizens obtain new I-94 cards.

Hardin said the time limit on accessing I-94 cards was due to limited bandwidth in the agency’s data management systems. “When we initially went electronic with I-94s in 2013, the system was archiving records after five years to keep system performance better,” she said.

The agency extended the time limit to 10 years after its technology was modernized, she said Friday in an interview.

But any time limit was still concerning to Catherine Chen, a former attorney for the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii who co-chairs the Hawaii Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

Many COFA migrants enter the U.S. as children and stay for decades, and people who see their I-94s online may not realize that they are only temporarily available on the website.

In February, Chen wrote to U.S. Customs and Border Protection on behalf of numerous community organizations and individuals requesting expansion of access to the documents.

“The COFA status never expires. The validity of the I-94 for COFA immigrants never expires. Thus, access to the I-94 should also never expire,” Chen wrote.

Most foreign citizens who receive I-94 cards are in the U.S. temporarily, and so the change will mainly benefit COFA migrants because of their right to stay in the U.S. indefinitely, Hardin said.

The Customs and Border Protection official is familiar with how important I-94s are to the Micronesian community, as she previously worked in Hawaii and helped migrants fix problems with I-94s at the agency’s deferred inspection sites.

She said the agency also is looking into allowing people to request corrections to their I-94 cards through the CBP One app.

In an interview Thursday, Chen said making the information accessible online may seem technical but is actually very important.

“A lot of things that sound very technical have huge impacts on a mother’s ability to provide for her children, a father’s ability to get a job,” she said.

Continuing Challenges

Hirono said Thursday in a statement that she met with Department of Homeland Security officials about the I-94 issue at the urging of Medical-Legal Partnership. She’s glad the agency listened.

“I will continue to work to support COFA citizens in the U.S. and strengthen our critical national security relationship with these countries,” the Hawaii Democrat said.

Lifting the time limit doesn’t solve I-94 access problems completely.

Chen and other advocates have taken to filing freedom of information requests to access their forms more quickly, but copies for older I-94s aren’t always available and versions obtained through public records requests have been rejected by driver’s license offices and other entities.

For those whose information isn’t online, requesting replacement cards from U.S. Customs and Immigration Services costs $445, a fee that’s not eligible for a waiver, and may take more than four years to receive, Chen noted in her February letter.

Uruman doesn’t believe I-94 cards should be required at all for COFA migrants.

“Our passports should be sufficient,” he said.

Still, he’s excited about the change. “It would be easier for people to apply for jobs, go to school, seek health care treatments.”

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