Feds owe more to migrants


POSTED: Friday, September 04, 2009

Congress seemed magnanimous in 1985 when it approved a compact allowing people from Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau access to health and education benefits while living in the United States. Most of the expense has been placed on Hawaii, where more than 7,000 such immigrants from Pacific island nations reside, and Congress should at long last take responsibility for the cost.

The Compacts of Free Association, which provide services to Pacific islanders after U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the region a half-century ago, direct the Interior Department's director of insular affairs to report yearly to Congress about the economic effect on Guam and Hawaii. It adds that Congress “;will act sympathetically and expeditiously to redress those adverse consequences.”;

That seemed dandy, except Congress did little to address those costs to Hawaii as they mounted over the years. When Guam and Hawaii took the issue to federal court, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1998 that it could not require the promised federal generosity. Submission of the insular affairs director's annual report to Congress can be ignored, the court ruled.

“;No matter what it says or how much it says,”; 9th Circuit Judge Pamela Ann Rymer wrote, “;the report is simply a document submitted to Congress that Congress has no obligation to consider, let alone act upon.”; Submitting the report, she emphasized, “;does not cause Congress to 'act sympathetically'”; but “;is purely informational.”;

By that time, Congress had made migrants from the Pacific islands ineligible for Medicaid, forcing Hawaii to pay for equivalent coverage. Since then, Congress has generously allowed their children and pregnant women to be covered by a free public insurance program, which is financed by state and federal matching funds.

Hawaii now pays more than $100 million a year for services, mainly health and education, to about 7,000 low-income noncitizens, most from Pacific island nations, according to Lillian Koller, state director of human services. The federal government provides only $11 million in reimbursement to the financially strapped state.

When Koller tried to set up a new program for the migrants that would reduce costs by $42 million over the next two years, federal District Judge J. Michael Seabright ordered a temporary halt to what he called “;a unilateral decision to decrease benefits with little or no notice.”;

Members of Hawaii's congressional delegation have tried in past years to hold the federal government more chargeable for the cost of services to Pacific island migrants, with little success. They should accelerate those efforts now with the knowledge that the federal government's continued irresponsibility otherwise will cause state layoffs for lack of funds.