The US must keep its promise to the Micronesian nations

A key deadline to preserve and strengthen vital Pacific ties is fast approaching: The United States is close to renegotiating deals with Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau as part of US efforts to counter China in the Pacific. The United States has a vested interest in maintaining defense access in the region. There is also a moral imperative to address the economic and social conditions this partnership has created on the islands.

Toward the end of World War II, the United States wrested control of Micronesia, the Marshals, and Palau from Japan. The United States has been in “free association” with the now independent nations of the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands since 1986, and with the Republic of Palau since 1994. These relationships are governed by the Compacts of Free Association, some provisions of which expire in 2023.

These treaties provide US grants for health care and education, and give the United States exclusive military rights in the islands. They also allow for free movement between the US and the islands, meaning citizens of these three COFA nations can enter the United States visa-free and live and work indefinitely as legal permanent residents.

However, the unresolved legacy of nuclear testing and the growing threat of climate change on the islands have driven their residents to other parts of the region and the United States. In the 1940s and 1950s, some Marshallese were forcibly relocated to Bikini Atoll for US nuclear tests. Others were exposed to radioactive fallout after the test.

Today, citizens of these islands migrate to the United States for a variety of reasons, including jobs, higher education, and access to specialized healthcare. Direct impacts of climate change — including more frequent typhoons, depletion of fish stocks and tidal surges — have prompted some to move. Sea level rise is likely to result in further displacement as conditions worsen.

Today, citizens of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau live, work, and pay taxes in almost every state and territory, but are not eligible for major federal programs. They serve in the US military at higher per capita rates than US citizens and have become integral and indispensable parts of their American communities.

They support a significant portion of Arkansas’ poultry processing operations, the tourism and service industries in Hawaii and Guam, and storage and care functions in the Pacific Northwest.

No path to citizenship

Despite their national and personal sacrifices and contributions to US defense, economic and cultural interests, these populations have no pathway to citizenship. They also face major challenges in accessing some critical safety-net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as Food Stamps — and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, both of which are available to other legal permanent residents of the United States.

There is an unprecedented, albeit limited, opportunity for the US government to wisely renegotiate the pacts. President Joe Biden’s administration can show its commitment to the region by including significant grant increases in the new pacts to address the islands’ educational, health and climate impacts. This would represent a recognition of the depth of the relationship, which is crucial at a time when China is courting the Pacific island nations. The Marshall Islands is home to one of the few US military, intelligence and aerospace bases in the region.

A recent report by the US Institute for Peace warned that Beijing is viewing the Pacific island nations as a low-investment, high-reward opportunity to expand its footprint. As the United States approaches the deadline for renegotiating the pacts, China is looking to expand its geographic dominance in the Pacific and add more nations to its coalition of countries opposed to Taiwan.

But the renegotiations are almost at a standstill. The Marshall Islands recently canceled a negotiation session when Washington failed to respond to a written proposal regarding the ongoing impact of nuclear testing.

The Compacts of Free Association are federal commitments and invaluable partnerships.

Additionally, Congress should address the obstacles faced by Micronesians in the United States by passing the nonpartisan Compact Impact Fairness Act. The legislation would grant compact citizens the same access to SNAP, TANF, federal grants and other public services as other legal permanent residents.

However, the bill has sat at the subcommittee level for more than a year. Micronesian populations—in the United States, these include Marshallese, Palauns, Chuukese, Kosraens, Yapese, and Pohnpeians—continue to struggle with access to public services. Either they forgo essential services, or states and territories fill the void

The Compacts of Free Association are federal commitments and invaluable partnerships. There has never been a better time for the US government to treat them as such. Renegotiating the pacts with significant grant increases and removing obstacles their people face in the United States will propel the relationship into the 21st century and hopefully well beyond.

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