Citizens of the three freely associated states (FAS) are allowed to travel, work, and study freely in the United States without a visa. At present, they are not even required to have a passport, though it is possible that this requirement will be reinstated during the current renegotiations of the compacts of free association (COFAs).
The United States can refuse to allow entry to a FAS migrant who has a communicable disease or a criminal record, or who is likely to become a public charge — that is, to require federal support. The U.S. also has the right to set terms on entry and length of stay, though at present there are no limits.
FAS migrants in the United States have uneven access to federal nutrition and income security programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Social Security Income (SSI) program, even though access to these programs was part of the original COFA agreements. Migrants were also denied access to Medicaid from 1996-2020, with disastrous results when COVID hit.
Rules about access to state programs are different in each state. Under the 10th amendment, states are allowed to set their own regulations on these matters. For example, in Arkansas, the state with the largest number of Marshallese COFA migrants, children from the Marshall Islands are eligible for state healthcare benefits, but adults are not; in 15 states and in Guam and Puerto Rico, COFA migrants receive no healthcare coverage. Another example is in-state tuition: in some states, COFA migrants are subject to different rules for this benefit compared with U.S. citizens. Guam has ruled that U.S. citizens have precedence over migrants from the freely associated states for housing assistance.
As noncitizens, FAS migrants cannot vote in the United States, although they do pay taxes.
And then there’s the matter of the administrative hassles, like getting a driver’s license, especially when clerks behind the counter at official offices don’t know about the rights for COFA migrants, or even what a freely associated state is.
They can be deported. Free transit in the U.S. is not equivalent to U.S. citizenship or state citizenship.
Lessons for Puerto Rico
If Puerto Rico were to seek its own sovereignty in free association with the United States, it is likely that the experience would be similar to that of current COFA nations. These realities on the ground have not been recognized by supporters of this option when they discuss a sovereign free association for Puerto Rico.
The Department of Justice has expressed concern that voters will believe that free association for Puerto Rico will be the same as the “enhanced commonwealth” long promised to Puerto Rico voters, which has been described as unconstitutional by all three branches of the federal government.