The U.S. Capitol. (Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)
Arkansas’ Marshallese community could gain access to additional federal programs if Congress approves the renewal of an amended compact discussed by a U.S. House subcommittee on Thursday.
Arkansas Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman chairs the committee overseeing the renegotiation process, which was extended when the two countries could not agree on terms prior to a Sept. 30 deadline.
Talks have continued, and the U.S. Department of State announced Tuesday that the U.S. and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) signed three agreements on Monday — an agreement to amend the compact, a new fiscal procedures agreement and a new trust fund agreement.
Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese Executive Director Melisa Laelan attended Thursday’s hearing and said she was glad the proposed compact includes access to additional federal programs.
“I think there is a general feeling of relief because there is a signed [agreement]; however, there are still hurdles of going through the Congress,” she said.
Westerman called the signing of the agreements this week “a milestone,” but noted some provisions are still pending and Congress must ultimately give final approval.
Arkansas is home to the largest population of Marshallese residents in the continental U.S. Thousands have settled in Arkansas since the 1980s, mostly in the northwest part of the state, with many finding work in poultry and other food processing operations.
The Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the RMI, the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) allow the U.S. to operate military bases in these Freely Associated States in exchange for security guarantees and economic assistance.
The economic assistance provision of the COFA expired for the RMI at the end of the federal fiscal year. The U.S. signed agreements in May with the FSM and Palau on extending economic assistance.
Throughout negotiations, lawmakers have discussed the importance of continuing the partnership between the U.S. and Pacific Island nations like the RMI to counter China’s influence in the region.
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Reuters first reported on Monday that the U.S. signed a new 20-year agreement on economic assistance to the Marshall Islands worth $2.3 billion.
Chief U.S. negotiator Joseph Yun told Reuters the money will support trust fund contributions, as well as grant assistance that would support education, health care, environment and infrastructure. The Marshallese government will determine where the new trust fund money goes, Yun said.
Compensation for past nuclear weapons testing by the United States in the Marshall Islands has been a sticking point in COFA negotiations. From 1946 to 1958, the U.S. conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests over the Marshall Islands, including the largest bomb ever detonated by the United States.
Laelan told the Advocate last month that some members of the Marshallese community say no amount of money could make up for the damage caused by the testing, so the U.S. should not tell the RMI how to use funds.
The original RMI compact became effective in 1986, with economic assistance beginning in 1987. The RMI signed agreements in 2003 to renew compact assistance, and Congress passed legislation amending the compacts and extending economic assistance for 20 years.
The discussion draft reviewed Thursday includes language from the Compact Impact Fairness Act, which would allow COFA migrants to qualify for most social safety net programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
A report released in August by ACOM and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families recommended using legislation to extend SNAP benefits to the thousands of Marshallese migrants who lawfully reside in Arkansas and struggle with food insecurity.
Rep. Steve Womack and U.S. Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas are co-sponsors of the Compact Impact Fairness Act.
Although Marshallese migrants can legally reside and work in the U.S. as part of the COFA, their unique immigration status was not accounted for in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Because the law was so narrowly tailored, they lost access to programs like Medicaid and SNAP, though Congress restored Medicaid access in 2020.
Benetick Maddison, executive director of the Marshallese Educational Initiative in Springdale, said he’s disappointed the compact “continues to ignore the ongoing consequences of the nuclear testing legacy” by only providing certain health services to residents of four of the Marshall Islands’ 29 atolls affected by nuclear testing and their descendants.
Maddison also said he’s grateful the new agreement would restore access to federal programs, but noted it’s the first step in a long process to Marshallese migrants accessing these benefits because of various barriers. The U.S. government must ensure that officials who oversee the benefits are educated about the status of COFA residents, he said.
“All too frequently Marshallese residents struggle to acquire benefits for which they currently qualify due to this ignorance and the language barrier,” Maddison said. “These issues must be addressed.”
Members of the House Natural Resources Committee have until next Tuesday to submit additional questions about the discussion draft, and the hearing record will be held open for ten business days for responses.
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