Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono wants immigration officials to fast-track employment authorization documents for Pacific Islanders who are legally working and living in the U.S. through a strategic agreement known as the Compact of Free Association.

The senator’s letter comes in the wake of new Homeland Security guidance that makes thousands of legal Hawaii residents ineligible for federally approved driver’s licenses or state IDs unless they obtain visas or employment authorization documents, which most don’t have.

The problem stems from the 2005 REAL ID Act. Citizens of COFA nations — the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands – were left off of that law, forcing them to renew federally approved IDs annually.

Senator Mazie Hirono speaks on election night at the Dole Cannery Ballroom.
Sen. Mazie Hirono co-sponsored a bill to make citizens of COFA nations eligible for federally approved long-term driver’s licenses. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hirono co-sponsored a bill last year amending the REAL ID Act to make citizens of COFA nations eligible for federally approved long-term driver’s licenses.

Instead, April guidance from the Department of Homeland Security said COFA citizens must have a visa or employment authorization document to get the IDs. But most have neither because neither documents are required to live and work legally in the U.S. EADs can take up to six months to obtain .

In Hawaii, the change has sparked confusion and frustration. A major school bus contractor, Roberts Hawaii, says COFA citizens make up half of their school bus driver workforce and some have already been denied licenses.

Hirono sent a letter Wednesday to Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Chad Wolf, senior official performing the duties of the undersecretary at the Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans.

“Given the urgency of the situation, I ask that you immediately expedite processing of EAD applications from FAS citizens on a categorical basis until October 2020, when all states are expected to complete implementation of the REAL ID Act,” Hirono wrote, using FAS to refer to the Freely Associated States, another name for the COFA nations. “I also ask that you continue working with my office to develop a longer-term solution to this issue.”

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