BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – The Government Accountability Office will audit the federal funding of the Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, says Congressman Charles Djou, R-HI, who supports the review.
Under COFA, citizens from Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands may travel without visas to Hawaii and other states and territories in the continental U.S. to take advantage of free medical care, food stamps, low income housing, the public education system, free tutoring and adult education classes and more public programs. In exchange, the U.S. Military has access to the islands and can train there.
The COFA funds provided by the federal government equal about $30 million and this is divided between Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Marianas.
In Hawaii, the cost of this legal immigration is more than $100 million a year to local taxpayers. The federal government is supposed to cover the cost, but pays the state just $11.4 million a year.
Djou says the disparity is hurting Hawaii because Micronesian citizens make up less than 1% of Hawaii's population, but consume over 20% of Hawaii's social services.
"For too long, the taxpayers of Hawaii have had to bear a disproportionate burden in providing social services for Micronesian citizens who travel to the United States visa-free thanks to the Compact of Free Association. . This cost is simply too high and unfair when Hawaii, like any other state, is making tough choices to survive these difficult times," Djou says.
The proposed audit is making international news. Radio New Zealand reports on December 12: "Congress representatives from the state of Arkansas, home to about 5,000 Marshall Islanders, say the state is spending millions of dollars to provide medical care and public education to islanders. They have also raised concerns about the need to address ways to reduce the communicable diseases islanders bring to the United States."
Meanwhile a battle in federal court over the state's obligation to cover the medical costs of all Micronesians in the state is coming to a close – at least for now.
In a series of stories this month, Hawaii Reporter has detailed the case in federal court brought by Micronesians against the state of Hawaii for a cutback in medical coverage that took effect in July 2010.
The plaintiffs were successful. Federal Judge Michael Seabright on Monday issued an injunction stopping the state of Hawaii from reducing health coverage to legal residents from Micronesia who reside in Hawaii under COFA.
Seabright said: ".for the last 14 years, Defendants [DHS] have treated COFA Residents the same as citizens and other qualified aliens by allowing them access to the same programs, with the only difference being that COFA Residents' participation was funded through State dollars only. It is only now that Defendants have decided to single out COFA Residents for lesser benefits than are provided to citizens and other classes of aliens."
The case was brought by a group of well-known Hawaii attorneys including Paul Alston and former attorney general Margery Bronster.
Victor Geminiani, Executive Director of Lawyers for Equal Justice, who teamed up with Bronster Hoshibata and Alston, Hunt Floyd & Ing in August 2010 said in a statement issued Monday: "Judge Seabright's order reaffirms the values so central to the people of our islands. We take care of each other, especially in difficult times, and we don't pick on any people because of where they come from."
The federal case will likely impact other states, according to attorney Alston, who notes attorneys in Massachusetts and other states with large legal immigrant populations are paying attention to the Hawaii case.
Alston told Hawaii Reporter in recent interview that while technically this ruling does not impact any other state directly, there are other states with similar issues already citing the Hawaii case and lawyers there who may be encouraged to file lawsuits arguing that "Seabright got it right." Alston's team also may expand their challenge to include non-COFA legal aliens excluded from medical coverage because they have been in the United States less than 5 years.
Congressman Djou maintains change to the COFA needs to happen on a federal level: "The COFA is an important part of our nation's foreign policy, but it is clear that it needs to be revised in light of the particular impact it has on our island state."
However, government officials say based on the Hawaii case, this change Djou and many local taxpayers advocate, if it is to happen, will likely have to be in Congress rather than in federal courts.