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What Really Happens under Free Association?

The Marshall Islands is one of three countries that have Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) with the United States. These nations are called the Freely Associated States (FAS).

From 1946 through 1958, the United States conducted nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands, with ongoing serious consequences for the islands and for the Marshallese people.

In exchange for the freedom to conduct tests of bombs in the Marshall Islands, and for ongoing military oversight of the Marshall Islands continuing today and into the future, the people of the Marshall Islands were given the freedom to live and work freely in the United States, as well as very limited financial assistance.  They are not U.S. citizens.

A fair trade?

For the United States, especially as the relationship between the U.S. and China becomes more contentious, all three of the freely associated states are strategically important.  The FAS countries receive limited financial support, access to the United States Post Office, and some benefits such as eligibility for Pell Grants. However, large numbers of Marshallese people have moved to the states as their nation becomes less habitable, and they have not received Medicaid, nutrition assistance or other federal benefits that were part of the original COFA.

“And what of the Marshallese who have already left the islands seeking access to healthcare, education, and employment?” asked Benetick Maddison of the Marshallese Educational Initiative. “The nuclear testing legacy – the driving force behind migration – has taken its toll on all Marshallese people. Most public benefits that were a part of the original Compact have been removed over the years.”

Initiative Attempts to Restore Lost Benefits to U.S. Residents from the Freely Associated States

Access to Medicaid was lost, apparently inadvertently, in 1996 when welfare reform was a priority for the federal government. This access was — at least in theory — restored in 2020, but in practice many Marshallese in the United States still do not have these benefits.

“What Marshallese qualify for under the Compact – or even the Compact agreement itself – is unknown to most US citizens, including federal officials whose responsibility it is to make decisions on Marshallese eligibility of benefits,” Maddison points out. “Those of us whose families migrated and continue to migrate in increasing numbers, now more and more due to climate change and rising seas, are sincerely grateful to the United States for providing opportunities despite injustices done to our people. For my family and all Marshallese families living in diaspora in Arkansas and across the United States, who sacrificed our lands, bodies, and culture for the good of mankind, we ask to be heard, to be seen, and to be treated fairly.”

A new deal for the FAS

U.S. Senators Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) and John Boozman (R-AR), together with Representatives Ed Case (D-HI) and Steve Womack (R-AR), have re-introduced The Compact Impact Fairness Act, which was first drawn up in 2021. The bill simply restores access to federal benefits for citizens of FAS.

“Marshallese families are an integral part of Arkansas. Across the nation, COFA citizens support U.S. defense efforts, pay taxes, and are core elements of our economy and communities,” said Rep. Womack.

Senator Boozman said,“Since 1996, COFA citizens have paid taxes as lawful permanent residents without receiving the benefits they are entitled to under this agreement. The Compact Impact Fairness Act would remove technical barriers to better serve their needs, all while maintaining our commitment to these lawful residents as a key component of U.S. national security efforts in the Pacific.”

If this bill passes and the COFAs are successfully renegotiated and passed by Congress, life will be easier for the Marshallese communities and the rest of the estimated 100,000 FAS citizens living in the United States.

Lessons for Puerto Rico

As some Puerto Rican leaders argue for free association for Puerto Rico, it is important that Puerto Rico voters have the opportunity to see the real-world application of free association to the nations that already have this relationship with the United States.

Just as a state of Puerto Rico could expect to have the same relationship with the federal government as the rest of the states, a freely associated republic of Puerto Rico could expect to have a similar relationship with the federal government as the existing freely associated states.

Image courtesy of Aboodi Vesakaran

1 thought on “What Really Happens under Free Association?”

  1. There is really nothing to discuss.
    If Puerto Rico wants to be treated on the same level as the states of the U.S., they “MUST VOTE FOR STATEHOOD”!!! There are NO other logical or realistic choices.
    The public must stop the petty arguments and tell their respective parties to do the same and agree on a plan that is best for Puerto Rico NOT their party at the expense of other parties.

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