Pacific states face
For close to two decades, people from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands have been allowed to freely come to the United States and its territories, whether in search of a job, an education, health care or simply a better standard of living.
But new partnership agreements between the United States and the two tiny Pacific island states would, for the first time, place some restrictions on the islanders' freedom to relocate.
"They're afraid that their ability to migrate to the United States might be curbed," said Elma Coleman, an advocate for the Marshallese community in Honolulu. "Maybe some of them will have to supply proof of employment before they depart the island, or if they come here and do not find employment for maybe a year, then they might be asked to return home.
"These are some of the things that the people are concerned about."
The Compacts of Free Association between the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands provide independence for the Pacific states, U.S. financial aid and freedom for their citizens to migrate to U.S. soil.
In exchange the United States receives defense rights to their waterways and land, including the Army's use of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshalls as a site for a key missile defense testing facility.
First signed in 1986, the compacts are being renegotiated to continue the U.S. relationship with the islands through 2024.
The right given islanders to freely travel to the United States or its territories without passports or visas has been one of the most valued privileges of the compacts, said Robert Underwood, Guam's former representative to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Under terms of the new compacts, Micronesian and Marshallese citizens entering the United States would require passports, and the U.S. attorney general's office also could set regulations specifying the time and conditions of their admission to the country.
The Pacific states also are given one year to develop a more effective immigrant screening system or face the possibility of having U.S. aid withheld, Underwood wrote in a recent essay examining the compacts.
Negotiators for the island states have described the "punitive provision" as "unnecessary and unjustified," Underwood wrote.
Hawaii already counts a population of about 7,000 Marshallese and a slightly smaller number of Micronesians.
But while the new compacts are placing restrictions on immigration, federal and state lawmakers say it also is their hope to enact an agreement that ultimately will stem the outflows from the islands by building up their economies.
"There's movement for health care and hopefully education as well, to do more services and infrastructure back in the affected areas so that people don't feel they have to move to Hawaii to access better health care and better education," state Sen. Norman Sakamoto said.
Earlier this month, the legislation renewing the compacts was amended by the U.S. House Resources Committee to restore some of the programs and services for the islands' citizens.
Some of the key changes were in the areas of health care and education. For example, the new compacts extend eligibility for federal Pell Grants to college students from the islands.
"We should be pushing education and maintaining that educated individual in that area and building up the economy instead of exporting them somewhere else," said Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif. "We do need to push education more within the affected areas so that we're building up that entire economy there."