“Compact” Cost Symptom of Larger Problems

This is an editorial guest column published in the Honolulu Star Advertiser (link) on November 23, 2011 under the title "Teach a man to fish." It is a response to this editorial calling for a revision to the immigration provisions of the Compacts of Free Association.

One billion dollars over the last six years.

That’s the estimated cost for government services provided to migrants from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Marshall Islands and Palau living on Hawaii and Guam. It’s separate and addition to direct U.S. assistance to those three island nations.

Frustration with the costs is growing. The money could be going to fund other core government services in Hawaii and Guam, or fuel growth in the private sector economy that created it. Spending on services and entitlements for these immigrants is really just a symptom: one manifestation of the faltering relationship between the United States and its long-time strategic partners in the Pacific.

Pacific Islanders from the three nations may enter and reside indefinitely in the United States, bypassing visa and labor certifications required of other immigrants. That’s a benefit provided by the Compacts of Free Association, those bi-lateral treaties that solidify America’s unique relationship with these three Freely Associated States (FAS).

Inevitably, the vast majority of FAS immigrants make their way to Hawaii and Guam. Their children attend public schools. Most of these students require remedial instruction in English and other subjects. Many claim free or reduced cost school meals. FAS citizens are eligible for Medicare and Emergency Medicaid programs. Among older FAS immigrants, high rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension lead to heavy medical costs. There’s also federal or state rent support for FAS families. It all adds up.

Geography explains why the impact of the Compact is disproportionately borne by Hawaii and Guam. It cannot account for the sheer size of that impact. That is a story of costly disappointments and unintended consequences.

Consider the FSM. Half of Micronesians over 25 are now high school dropouts. Only one-in-ten who enter the two-year community college system graduate from it. Private sector unemployment is rampant and a third of the national population lives below the “Basic Needs” poverty level. The IMF ranks Micronesia in the bottom quarter of its worldwide “ease of doing business” survey. All that is despite $130 million in annual assistance programs from the U.S. Government.

The bleak conditions at home explain why an estimated 56,000 Micronesians, Marshallese and Palauans now reside in the United States. They comprise nearly a quarter of those nations’ total populations. Over half of these immigrants come to Hawaii and Guam.

The original intent of American support to the three Freely Associated States was to build the capacity for economic and political self-sufficiency in those nations. Despite decades of assistance, the FAS remain poor and dysfunctional, so many of these Micronesians, Marshallese and Palauans understandably seek greener pastures in the U.S.

A skeptic might argue that, thanks to their remote location and lack of natural recourses, small isolated island nations are “automatically” destined for permanent financial dependency; that political and financial sovereignty are unobtainable. But none would claim the present situation is the best that can be realized. The problem is not the size or scope of U.S. support, the problems lay within the ways that money is structured, allocated and managed. Private investment is crowded out, local decision-making and initiative hampered, and civil society woefully underdeveloped.

No one has better means or motivation to advocate for improved development in the Freely Associated States than the people of Hawaii and Guam. Hawaiians and Guamanians have a unique appreciation of the strategic importance of American forces and transit in the Central Pacific. Likewise, they have a heightened sensitivity to the influx of immigrants who are themselves frustrated with the state of under-development in their home islands.

If the people of Hawaii and Guam can direct mainland Americans’ attention to solving economic and political challenges in the Freely Associated States, then they will accomplish much more than just reducing the short term “Compact Impact” costs they now struggle with.

About the author: Neil Mellen is President of the Habele Outer Island Education Fund, a South Carolina based charity that supports Micronesian students through private school scholarships, library donations and academic competitions.