Biden backs plan to restore benefits for COFA migrants

Joe Biden. File photo

U.S. President Joe Biden has endorsed legislation sponsored by Hawaii’s congressional delegation to restore access to federal benefits for tens of thousands of Micronesian migrants living in the U.S. legally under the Compacts of Free Association.

If successful, the move could save Hawaii and some Pacific Island territories, most notably Guam, tens of millions of dollars each year.

Biden’s fiscal year 2024 budget for the U.S. Department of the Interior calls for passage of the Compact Impact Fairness Act, which was first introduced in 2021 by U.S. Senators Mazie Hirono and Hawaii Congressman Ed Case and refiled in March.

The bill is part of a joint effort with the administration to put migrants from the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands on the same footing as other legal residents in the U.S. after welfare reform in the 1990s stripped them of eligibility for programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and Social Security.

But it’s also part of broader U.S. attempts to combat China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

“This is a good thing,” Case said. “It’s a solid solution to a nagging problem that has held me and others back from fully endorsing the renegotiated compacts.”

The Compacts of Free Association expire this year and next. The U.S. has been in negotiations with the COFA nations for the past several years on a new series of agreements, which are expected to be finalised in the coming months.

Under the current agreements, citizens from the COFA countries are allowed to live, work and study in the U.S and its territories without a visa in exchange for access to their islands for military operations. The U.S. also provides economic assistance to the countries.

But in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that inadvertently blocked COFA migrants from receiving the same federal benefits as other legal residents living in the U.S..

The result was that for the past two-plus decades states and territories have been forced to make up the difference to provide social services, whether it was health care or other assistance to needy families with children.

An amendment to the COFA agreements in 2003 provided US$30 million annually to Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands to help offset the costs of taking in COFA migrants, but by most accounts that funding has fallen woefully short.

In 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated in a report that the total cost to Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands from fiscal year 2004 to 2018 was US$3.2 billion.

The reimbursements from the federal government from 2004 to 2019 only accounted for US$509 million.

Case has spent the past several years arguing that Hawaii and other Pacific Island territories should receive more Compact Impact aid. But he said restoring benefits to COFA migrants would have the same effect by eliminating the need for reimbursement altogether, which is what Biden’s budget proposes.

Congress already restored access to Medicaid in 2020, something that Case said eliminated “half the problem.”

The hope now is to finish the job, he said, which he would consider a permanent fix.

“In the compact impact scenario you have to fight this fight every single year,” Case said. “But if the benefits are simply reextended to the migrants, there’s just not going to be an annual budgetary appropriations matter anymore. It will be hard-baked into the federal government’s spending.”

Compact impact money is only available to Hawaii and Pacific Island territories, so the restoration of federal benefits would help other states, such as Arkansas and Oregon, that have seen a large influx of COFA migrants in recent years.

Josie Howard is the founder and CEO of We Are Oceania, a Honolulu-based nonprofit that provides services to migrants from the Micronesian region.

Howard herself is from Chuuk and said she hopes that the proposed change in legislation will shift the discourse surrounding COFA country citizens, which oftentimes revolves around the idea that they are a burden despite the fact that studies have found they contributed tens of millions of dollars to their local governments and economies.

It would also make it easier for her to find resources for those who are in need.

Josie Howard leads the nonprofit We Are Oceania in Kalihi that helps migrants from the Micronesian region succeed in Hawaii.

“This is a big, bold move,” Howard said. “For us COFA citizens, it’s going to make us feel included in this community.”

Still, she said she doesn’t anticipate that the discrimination and vitriol directed toward Micronesians, particularly in Hawaii, will dissipate anytime soon just because some of them will have access to federal benefits.

“That money cannot buy that,” she said.

It’s up to Congress to approve the new COFA treaties as well as the associated legislation to restore benefits to migrants, which currently has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

In general, both parties are in agreement that the U.S. needs to bolster its presence in the Indo-Pacific and strengthen its alliances with countries it’s had long-standing relationships with, including the COFA nations, to present a strong front against China.

But as Republicans have taken control of the House there has been increased debate over the future of various entitlement programs, and Medicaid in particular, as they look for cuts to the federal budget.

Case acknowledged that there might be challenges down the road, particularly as it relates to discussions about social services, but he hopes that he and his colleagues in the state’s congressional delegation have done a sufficient job setting the course for a win.

“I don’t think anything is a slam dunk in Congress nowadays,” Case said. “But we’ve spent years preparing the ground for this.”

Michael Walsh, a senior adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum, said it’s best to be prepared for the unexpected when it comes to Congress, especially in the current political climate.

The Compact Impact Fairness Act has the backing of a handful of Republicans from Arkansas.

But as the treaty renewals and questions about expanding entitlements for migrants reaches out to the broader Congress, Walsh said there’s a greater likelihood that politics will take over. “This is an obvious place for politicization because we’re talking about domestic constituencies of members of Congress and American taxpayer dollars,” Walsh said. “It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. Because when people say things are going to potentially move through Congress one always has to ask what you’ve missed,” he said.