In 1996, U.S. residents from the Freely Associated States(FAS) suddenly had their Federal benefits taken away. Congress had just passed a landmark welfare overhaul bill, and the legislation incorrectly classified FAS residents as immigrants.
The status of FAS migrants became essentially the same as that of immigrants from any other sovereign nation for the purpose of qualifying for basic Federal resources, in spite of the special relationship their nations had with the United States.
There is nothing in the legislative history that indicates that bill drafters considered any of the unique qualities of a Freely Associated State. It is possible – even likely – that drafters didn’t even know what Freely Associated States are. Regardless of intent, however the results have been clear and long lasting: U.S. residents from Freely Associated States were no longer eligible for Medicaid, SNAP, Temporary Aid for Needy Families, Social Services Block Grants, Children’s Health Insurance Program, SSI, and Federal Benefits in general. The new law launched a new normal for FAS citizens in which they were not able to receive help with heating bills, job services, or medical care.
Benefits for residents of the U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, who move to a state were left intact.
What’s a Freely Associated State?
Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau all live in Freely Associated States: independent nations that have a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the United States. They can live and work freely in the United States, and they pay taxes as other residents of states do, but they are not U.S. citizens and the U.S. can overrule local governments on all matters involving national security and defense.
While Free Association is available only to sovereign nations, some Puerto Rican leaders discuss it as though it were something completely different from independence. The historic myth of “enhanced commonwealth” suggests that Puerto Ricans could maintain U.S. citizenship, increase financial support from the United States, and chose from among a menu of federal laws, all while having sovereignty, freedom from the territorial clause, and a guarantee of this relationship forever.
In fact, examination of the current Freely Associated States shows that this is not how the FAS relationship works.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act
For example, consider HR 3570. This is a new bill to amend the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 to allow citizens of the FAS nations to receive federal benefits when they live in the United States.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 had the goal of “changing welfare as we know it.” It was designed to move welfare recipients off of welfare and into work, while supporting these families with childcare, medical care, and other specific, time-limited assistance.
One of the changes brought about by this law was that COFA citizens, who had previously been eligible for Medicaid and other federal benefits, no longer had this eligibility. Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau all can freely enter the United States, live in the States, and work in the U.S. However, as legal nonimmigrants, they were not defined as “qualified aliens” under the terms of The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.
In spite of the fact that COFA citizens living in the U.S. pay taxes just as other residents do, and without consideration of the public health effects of the exclusion, people from the Freely Associated States lost their eligibility for Medicaid and similar federal programs. States had the option to provide coverage, but most did not do so.
The United States had the right to make this change. Under a COFA, either nation in the free association relationship can make unilateral changes at any time.
Medicaid is restored while other benefits remain elusive
In December 2020, as part of the COVID-19 relief bill, Congress finally restored Medicaid eligibility for COFA citizens.
This legal change was a direct response to the pandemic. Senator Maizie Hirono (D-HI) has insisted for two decades that the COFA citizens’ loss of benefits was “inadvertent” and had been advocating for their reinstatement.
During the pandemic, however, it became clear that the lack of benefits created public health issues that affected the broader population.
In Northwest Arkansas, for example, Marshallese immigrants make up 1.5% to 3% of the total population, but represented 19% of COVID-19 aides and 38% of the deaths. Without Medicaid coverage, many Marshallese residents did not seek medical care. Many continued to go to work at poultry processing plants, endangering the broader community.
With this urgent motivation, Congress reinstated Medicaid coverage, but not eligibility for other federal benefits.
Text for HR 3570 has not yet been made public, but the law is described as amending “the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 to clarify that citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau who are lawfully residing in the United States are eligible for certain Federal public benefits.”
Citizens of COFA countries who relied on these federal benefits lost them overnight and without warning in 1996. There is no sign that Congress had thought this through and planned for this outcome. But until Congress takes action to correct what may have been an inadvertent change in their circumstances, people from the Freely Associated States who moved legally to a U.S. state are not eligible for federal benefits intended to help families in the U.S.
As a territory of the United States, rather than a nation in free association with the United States, Puerto Rico is in a completely different position.
Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States by birth and can move freely in the States, working and living where they choose. As citizens, they are eligible for the benefits available to all other U.S. citizens wherever they live.
As a State, Puerto Rico would continue to be eligible for all benefits available to citizens. Currently, U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico — regardless of their birthplaces — do not receive the same level of benefits as people living in States. If Puerto Rico is admitted as a State, this would change. The Constitution specifically requires that all States be treated equally under federal law, and this would apply to the new State of Puerto Rico as well, perhaps after a temporary transition period.
If Puerto Rico were to become a Freely Associated State, Congress would continue to have the ability to change the terms of the relationship, just as Congress currently has the ability to change the terms of the U.S. relationship with the current Freely Associated States. And sometimes Congress makes those changes without careful consideration – with a profound impact on FAS residents living in the U.S.