Micronesians in Hawaii face uncertain future

COFA Agreements provide US regional control in exchange for limited access to America.

Tommy Esang Remengesau, President of Palau, addresses the 68th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. [AP]

When the bloodiest Pacific battles of World War II were over, the United States found a new use for the small islands of Micronesia: open-air nuclear testing. Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted at least 67 nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands, unleashing the equivalent of over 7,200 Hiroshima-sized bombs in the Marshall Islands. The largest test, carried out in March 1954, had a yield of 15 megatons, over 1,000 times the strength of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Once idyllic atolls were transformed into radioactive craters and local people were forced to relocate, sometimes to islands previously considered uninhabitable. With no knowledge of nuclear weapons, Marshallese and other Pacific Islanders became unwitting atomic guinea pigs. America’s nuclear tests spawned a legacy of stillborn babies, birth defects, sterility, cancer and other maladies. When it came time to “clean up” after the tests, the US recruited hundreds of Micronesians who worked in highly contaminated areas, allegedly without adequate protection.

The United States, which administered the UN mandated Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, used this unchallenged control over the region to advance it’s own military and political agenda, but was also charged with the economic development and care for over a thousand small islands and their people.

In 1986 the US signed agreements called the Compact of Free Association (COFA) with two newly independent Pacific island nations: the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Island (RMI). A similar compact was entered with the Republic of Palau in 1994. These compacts gave the US greater control and exclusive access to over a million square miles of the Pacific, allowing for additional military and weapons testing at facilities like the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a critical support for the US’s Space Surveillance Network.

In exchange for US claims of “strategic denial” (exclusive territorial control), citizens FSM, RMI and Palau (also called Belau) were granted the right to live permanently or come and go at will in the United States. What often goes unmentioned is the fact that under the compacts the US will maintain strategic denial and use of military sites like Kwajalein for decades even if economic assistance and other defense provisions are not renegotiated.

As legal residents (but not citizens), COFA residents can work, study, receive medical treatment and are required to pay local, state and federal taxes. In return, they were initially eligible for most of the same public benefits as Americans. That changed in during 1996 federal welfare reform when Congress restricted access to a broad range of programs to certain non-US citizen residents including COFA migrants. The result was many COFA patients were cut off from the very health care system their tax dollars were supposed to support.

In 2009, blaming a downturn in the economy, former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle’s administration notified COFA residents of drastically reduced health care access. Many complained they were given inadequate notice and without explanation in their own language. COFA patients visited their doctors only to find they no longer had the health care they relied on for cancer treatment, dialysis, medication and other life-saving treatment and medication.

The cuts resulted in a class action lawsuit which won a preliminary injunction in federal district court that would ensure access to essential health services. To date, the case remains on appeal in the 9th Circuit Court.

As tax payers, COFA migrants pay for social service programs like SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and federally subsidized education loans, yet do not fully benefit from all programs.

The exact number of  COFA migrants reside in Hawaii today is difficult to determine as they can move fluidly between their home nations and the US without a visa or Green Card. Current estimates range from 12,000 to 18,000 migrants in Hawaii with additional communities on the West Coast, Guam and as far away as Arkansas. As many as one-fifth of COFA nationals may live outside their home countries.

Assimilation to Hawaii’s Polynesian-based society would appear natural for Pacific Island migrants who share cultural and historical parallels, but despite Hawaii’s reputation as an ethnic and cultural melting pot and famous ‘Aloha Spirit’, Hawaii’s newest wave of migrants face discrimination and continued restricted access to federal and state benefits.

Fight for the right

In response to this discrimination, the Japanese American Citizens League in Honolulu produced a short documentary to educate the public about COFA migrants. Appearing in the video was William Hoshijo, executive director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission. Hoshijo said, “Hawaii residents from COFA nations have been scapegoated and described negatively as a burden and drain on resources, but for those who care about fairness and justice in Hawaii, it’s our responsibility to speak out to support our brothers and sisters in their struggle against discrimination.”

Along with employment and education, health care is a top concern for many COFA migrants who suffer elevated rates of thyroid, colon and other cancers, ostensibly stemming from nuclear testing. Furthermore, the rapid urbanization and an interruption of their traditional diet based on of subsistence fishing and farming has contributed to higher incidences of diabetes, heart disease and strokes.

Speaking about problems faced by Hawaii’s newest migrants, Wayne Tanaka, an administrator for Healthy Pacific, an online a repository for COFA health care-related information resources calls it a “health care and justice issue.” He says that racism is perpetuated by people who are unable to make national and ethnic distinctions between the diverse backgrounds of COFA migrants.

That racism manifests itself in the education, health care and criminal justice systems says Tanaka. It appears as offhand remarks, belittling jokes, and as graffiti like “Return my tax dollars” scrawled angrily on the side of a Micronesian food store in Honolulu.

Tanaka works with attorney Dina Shek, director of the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii. Nearly 80 per cent of her clients are Micronesian, most of them from the Chuuk Islands in FSM.

Micronesians aren’t Hawaii’s first group of immigrants to be the target of discrimination, just the latest, Shek says. “Now that [Micronesians] have become a more identifiable group, they become an easier target.” What’s different is that COFA migrants have a more complicated immigration status.

Shek explains, “There are these weird perceptions that they’re not paying taxes. Actually, it’s the opposite. [COFA migrants] are paying all the same taxes…yet they are not benefiting from those taxes because there are so many limitations on certain services and programs.”

Masters and slaves

Like many COFA migrants, Innocenta Sound-Kikku, a native of Chuuk, came to Hawaii for better health care – not for herself, but for her father. Sound-Kikku, vice chair of the Micronesian Health Community Network has lived in Guam, Saipan, American Samoa and Hawaii, but returned to Honolulu in 2007 to care for her ailing father who is receiving dialysis treatment not available in Chuuk.

Although the number of Micronesians has grown in Hawaii over the last three decades, they remain misunderstood says Sound-Kikku. She points out that while the Marshall Islands were ground zero for nuclear testing, surrounding islands were also impacted and continue to suffer the effects of military pollution in the form of oil-leaking sunken ships and unexploded bombs and ammunition, a legacy of World War II.

When basic health services are denied to COFA residents, Sound-Kikku says it feels like her community is being singled out. That, coupled with bullying at school and being the butt of cruel jokes, Sound-Kikku says, begs the question, “If I’m looking at it from a Western perspective they would say, ‘they are better off than if they were not even here.’ But in whose lenses are we looking through?”

Sound-Kikku fears Micronesian migrant children are losing their cultural identity, language and values, as she concedes Western influence in Micronesia has shifted values away from more traditional systems, giving more status to those with money.

“Money has become more valuable than our culture. One of our elders said, ‘we used to be masters of the currents of the Pacific but today we are slaves to the currency of the United States.'”

COFA contributions

Joakim Peter, also Chuukese, is a Micronesian community advocate in Honolulu. Formerly director of Chuuk’s campus of the College of Micronesia, Peter specializes in helping migrant families with health and disability issues. He sees COFA as a symbol of the relationship between the United States and the Pacific islanders who have sacrificed environmental sovereignty in order to accommodate US security demands.

He says the exchange between the US and COFA nations is an attempt to balance a relationship in which both parties have given much. “[We] want to participate in the American dream no more, no less, than anyone else,” Peter says, noting that the relationship affords America exclusive access to the islands, skies and waters. “Exclusive,” Peter repeats for emphasis. “Nowhere else in the world do we have [such] a relationship with any other country but the US.”

COFA migrants, Peter points out, have sacrificed much for the US and have the highest volunteer rate per capita in the US’s military as well as a casualty rate higher than any US state. Furthermore, Micronesian migration, Peter says, contributes to America’s diversity, introducing dozens of cultures and languages and dialects like Yapese, Marshallese, Puluwatese and Pohnpeian spoken in some 100 different islands. Peter, who encourages sharing traditional knowledge with outside cultures, adds that Micronesian celestial-based ocean navigation has been studied for decades by scholars in the US, including scientists at NASA.

Despite past and present difficulties, Peter remains optimistic. By working at the community, school and church level, wrong information can be corrected, negative stereotypes eliminated and Micronesians can be better integrated into American society, he says.

‘For the Good of Mankind’

The Pacific Proving Grounds, where the bulk of America’s nuclear tests were conducted in the 1940s and 50s were in the Marshall Islands which Marshallese poet and writer Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner calls home. When Jetnil-Kijiner’s parents took her and her brother from their home on Majuro to Hawaii for work and educational opportunities, she couldn’t speak English but she learned the language even as she lost her ties with her own native tongue.

In 2012 Jetnil-Kijiner represented the Marshall Islands at Poetry Parnassus, an international gathering of poets akin to a literary Olympics. There she recited a poem called “History Project” in which she recounts her own experience researching the Marshall Islands’ nuclear history.

Reading her poem, her voice builds from conversational to a painful intensity, describing the shame of unexplained miscarriages and birth of “jelly babies,” and how the Marshallese were told that allowing their atolls be used as atomic testing was “for the good of mankind.”

She reads, “…at 15 I want megatons of TNT, radioactive energy and a fancy degree, anything and everything I could ever need to send ripples of death through a people who put goats before human beings so their skin can shrivel beneath the glare of hospital room lights three generations later as they watch their grandmother, their mother, their cousin’s life drift across that same black screen. Knots of knuckles tied to steel beds cold and absent of any breath, but I’m only 15…” Through her poetry she evokes the raw pain of graphing her people’s death “through cancer and canned-food diabetes.”

Recalling a visit to Kwajelein Atoll when she was 10-years-old, Jetnil-Kijiner speaks of the beauty of the island and how she felt encountering “Restricted Access” signs.

“I remember thinking this island was so beautiful, so sculptured. It just seemed tragic to me. I don’t agree with it at all. I don’t see why we need to be giving away our islands like this.”

(Not quite) Nuclear-free

The third Micronesian nation to reach an agreement with the US was the Republic of Palau.

Richard Salvador, an English teacher and organizer with the COFA Community Advocacy Network was born and raised in Palau and first came to Hawaii in 1989 as a student. He explains that Palau’s agreement, signed during the Clinton administration, took the longest to reach largely due to Palau’s constitution which proclaimed the island nation as nuclear free.

“We said if the US wants to use any part of Palau for military purposes, it can, but we don’t want any nuclear materials there,” recalls Salvador. The United States, which follows a policy of neither confirming or denying the presence of nuclear weapons on some naval vessels pressured Palau to abandon its commitment to being nuclear free. As a result negotiations dragged on for nearly two decades while the US continued to push for and fund referendums with an increasingly lower threshold for giving up its no nukes policy. In order to accommodate the compact, Salvador explains that Palau is essentially overlooking its stated goal of being “nuclear free” for as long as the compact persists.

Under the US-Palau compact, Salvador says the nation of 21,000 has seen many of it citizens migrate to the US in search of education and employment opportunities or to volunteer in the military. This loss of much of its own workforce has led to Palau importing guest workers from Southeast Asian nations, according to Salvador.

One aspect of COFA that gets little attention is that, along with Israel, Palau, FSM and RMI are the United States’ closest allies at the United Nations, voting alongside the US even when other staunch allies do not.

Rising seas

But for all the financial support COFA nations receive from the US, they remain among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise and, like other small islands, the people already face the reality that, as when pushed aside for nuclear tests, they may once again be forced to leave their island homes as rising seas and increased flooding and drought threaten their livelihood.

“However remote you are in the Pacific,” Salvador says, “the fate of these islands is affected in so many ways by people on big continents.”

Over seven decades, the unfulfilled promises of COFA which can be seen in the lack of economic development and self-sufficiency, along with unemployment and inadequate health care options in Micronesia make it likely that in years ahead, Hawaii will see more COFA migration, not less.

How Hawaii’s newest residents will be welcomed to America’s only Pacific island state remains an unanswered question with which advocates like Dina Shek still struggle. “There’s so much more than the simplistic, ‘these people are taking advantage of this open travel provision.’ I think there is a linkage to Obama’s Asia-Pacific build up…Why would the US want to let go of this region? There are certainly reasons to retain power and military control over this region,” Shek says. “It’s not a simple narrative that they’re all coming here to take these benefits. It was the US that pushed for COFA nations to have unlimited travel access.”

Considering Micronesians who have left their home, either by choice or necessity, Jetnil-Kijiner, the young Marshallese poet, continues to tell the story of people who have figuratively or literally lost their home.

“I don’t think people understand how important land is to Marshallese people. To completely lose your atoll, your home island like that, it’s heartbreaking. You lose all your ties because land is life.”

Source: Al Jazeera