Although the concept of free association has gained attention over the past year among some Puerto Ricans who seek enhanced autonomy with continued close U.S. ties, the implications of such an arrangement generally remain murky.
When sustained winds of 140 mph arrived in Guam on May 24 as Typhoon Mawar hit land, some consequences of free association became a little clearer.
COFA citizens in Guam
The United States has compacts of free association (COFA) with three Pacific countries. Some 18,874 COFA citizens, including citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, live in Guam.
People born in Guam are, like those born in Puerto Rico, citizens of the United States. Citizens of the three freely associated states are not U.S. citizens.
When Typhoon Mawar hit, Guam’s Department of Labor made an interesting discovery. As Guam officials prepared to distribute funds from Disaster Unemployment Assistance to survivors of Typhoon Mawar, officials discovered that COFA citizens legally residing in Guam are not eligible for those benefits.
This difference in eligibility between U.S. citizens and COFA citizens underscores the fact that even though COFA citizens are allowed to travel and work freely in the United States, the two are not identical. COFA migrants in the U.S. lack access to the benefits of U.S. citizenship.
KUAM, a news source in Guam, reported that “Guam DOL emphasized that their federal counterpart is the one administering the program.” The implication is that Guam does not approve of this restriction, but Guam lacks the power to change it.
In a related letter to the Pacific Daily News, Guam resident and community leader John Howard decried the fact that FAS citizens who lost their homes to the typhoon are not eligible for assistance from FEMA. “A true friend cannot leave a friend behind, especially in a time of need,” he wrote, “and I believe the United States will not ignore this unfortunate issue of COFA migrants not eligible for FEMA Disaster Aid.” Yet at this time, there are no efforts underway in Washington to expand the program, which helps people who cannot reach their place of work or whose workplace has closed because of a disaster and those who cannot work due to an injury from a disaster.
COFA citizen fairness?
The unequal status of COFA migrants living in the U.S. as non-citizens is becoming increasingly well known. Pending legislative initiatives such as the Compact Impact Fairness Act of 2023 would extend certain federal benefits to COFA citizens, but the sad truth of the matter is that such benefits do not exist today and have not been available for over 25 years despite the fact that COFA migrants are eligible for such benefits under the terms of their compacts of free association with the U.S. In fact, COFA migrants used to receive the benefits, but Congress ended eligibility in welfare legislation passed in 1996 that was so comprehensive it is doubtful the bill authors were even aware of the law’s treatment of COFA migrants.
For Puerto Ricans who seek enhanced autonomy with continued close U.S. ties, free association may not be their best answer.
Updated August 29, 2023.