Regional Think Tank to Focus on American Samoa, CNMI, Guam, Hawaii, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau – 6/12/19

The Islands Society is pleased to announce a revised mission for the organization. 

The Islands Society will conduct hyper-regional research on social policy, political strategy, and health activities.

In support of this mission, the Islands Society will redirect future programming toward education, health, homelessness, and public safety initiatives that support integrated community development in Hawaii, the U.S. Pacific Territories, the Compact of Free Association (COFA) States, and the Republic of Kiribati.

Separately, the Islands Society will launch a series of working groups to explore the strategic options that state politicians could adopt with respect to future renegotiations of the Compacts of Free Association and their associated agreements. Initially, these working groups will be established for the states of Arkansas, Hawaii, and Washington.

Finally, the Islands Society will launch a new publication entitled The COFA SITREP. This publication will provide a global platform for subject matter experts to share their insights on developments involving the Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau. 

According to Michael Edward Walsh, Founder of the Islands Society, “Back in 2011, we launched our nonprofit as the Pacific Islands Society. At that time, our vision was to provide the people of Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Territories with the knowledge, skills, networks, and exposure to make their voices heard on the world stage. Later, we shifted from a regional to a global focus. As a consequence, we expanded our mission to meet the needs of other insular communities. While we have benefited from that global perspective, it took our focus away from our raison d’être. We realized that needs to change. So, we are going back to our roots. And, we will exclusively focus our efforts on regional research on social policy, political strategy, and health activities in American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Northern Mariana Islands, and Palau.”

About the Islands Society

The Islands Society is a “Top-Rated” American 501(c)(3) nonprofit working to respect, inspire, and empower coastal communities around the world.

Website: www.islandssociety.org
Facebook: www.facebook.com/The-Islands-Society/
Twitter: www.twitter.com/islandssociety

The Sovereignty of Freely Associated States in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific – 6/10/19

A free and open Indo-Pacific is one of the national security strategic objectives of the United States. According to the Department of Defense, this strategic objective is grounded in a set of overarching principles that includes respecting the sovereignty and independence of other nations.

The Compact of Free Association (COFA) Act of 1985 may have brought about an end to American trusteeship over the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. However, the United States Government continues to produce official documents that suggest that the Freely Associated States are not sovereign. For example, the Department of Defense recently classified the “Marshall Islands” under “US / US Territories” in the Base Structure Report – Fiscal Year 2018 Baseline. 

According to The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, the United States has “an enduring commitment to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules, norms, and principles of fair competition.” Unfortunately, those official documents that suggest that the Freely Associated States are not sovereign undercut that commitment, which in turn risks negatively influencing the support of COFA citizens for the national security strategic objectives of the United States.

Michael Walsh is a Research Fellow in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. The opinions expressed are his own.

Time to Protect COFA Interests of Hawai’i – 6/6/19

The United States maintains relationships of free association with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Under current law, these relationships are governed by a set of enduring and temporary provisions. The enduring provisions include the requirement that the United States exempt most citizens of these countries from visa and certification requirements imposed on foreigners by federal immigration legislation. The temporary provisions require the United States to provide these countries with sector grants, education grants, and trust fund contributions, along with access to federal aviation, disaster, postal, and weather programs and services. The US is also obligated to provide impact grants to American Samoa, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam, and Hawai`i. Since these temporary provisions significantly mitigate the adverse consequences of these relationships, the Hawai’i state government should take steps to ensure that the overarching agreements that govern these relationships are amended prior to the expiration of their temporary provisions in fiscal year (FY) 2023.

The Compacts of Free Association Task Force (COFA-TF) has pointed out that the United States may not have intended for these relationships to adversely affect Hawai`i. However, “the unexpected level of mass migration to the U.S. under the Compacts has clearly resulted in ‘adverse consequences’ to the state in terms of stretching already thin financial resources to provide services to the ever-growing number of COFA migrants.” The impact costs that have been reported by Hawai`i support this claim. According to official reports by the governor’s office, non-immigrant aliens from the freely associated States (FAS) cost Hawai`i more than $32 million in FY 2002, $100 million in FY 2008, and $163 million in FY 2014. According to unofficial reports by state officials, non-immigrant aliens from the FAS will cost Hawai`i between $200 million and $300 million in FY 2019. To put these figures in perspective, this is equivalent to between 1.3 and 2.1 percent of  Hawai’i’s  executive operating budget for FY 2019.

The adverse consequences of COFA migration on Hawai`i are mitigated by temporary provisions in the overarching agreements that govern these relationships.  Under current law, the United States is required to annually provide $30 million in impact grants to American Samoa, CNMI, Guam, and Hawai`i on the basis of their COFA migrant populations. For Hawai`i, these impact funds defrayed over $14.8 million in government services provided by the state to COFA migrants in FY 2019.

The United States also is required to provide sector grants, education grants, trust fund contributions along with access to federal aviation, disaster, postal, and weather programs and services to the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. These contributions represent the lion’s share of the estimated $3.5 billion in economic assistance that the United States is required to provide to these countries between FYs 2004 and 2023. According to the Department of Interior, this economic assistance improves the quality of life in the FAS and potentially stems the migration of their citizens to the United States. These temporary provisions are set to expire in FY 2023.

The expiration of the temporary COFA provisions is expected to substantively increase the costs of providing government services to COFA migrants across the United States. As pointed out by the US Government Accountability Office, the sector grants and education grants currently support approximately one-third of the annual revenue of the Federated States of Micronesia and one-quarter of the annual revenue of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. While the United States may have intended for the COFA trust funds to offset the loss of these revenues when these sector grants and education grants expire in FY 2023, the COFA trust funds are “unlikely to provide maximum annual disbursements, may provide no disbursements at all in some years, and are unlikely to sustain the funds’ FY 2023 value.” If the annual distributions of the COFA trust funds “fall short of the inflation-adjusted amount of annual grant assistance” allocated in FY 2023, it is likely that there will be a significant deterioration in the quality of life in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. That is why the Department of Interior recently warned the United States Congress that there is a significant risk that there will be an increase in the “out-migration of FAS citizens” to the United States “when direct grant funding under the Compact expires after 2023.” This increased out-migration probably would have a disproportionate impact on a handful of states and territories, including Hawai`i.

The Imperative for Hawai`i

Hawai`i has a substantive interest in championing provisions in federal legislation that mitigate the adverse consequences of COFA-based migration on impacted jurisdictions. It is therefore surprising that the senior political leadership of Hawai`i has not been collectively ringing the alarm bells over the fast-approaching expiration of a number of provisions in the overarching agreements that govern the free association relationships with the Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of the Marshall Islands. Hawai`i should take all necessary steps to ensure that these overarching agreements are amended prior to the expiration of these temporary provisions in 2023. This includes partnering with other impacted jurisdictions to advocate for their joint interests at the national level. If the senior political leadership of Hawai`i does not rise to this challenge, then the residents of Hawai`i will likely bear the burden of exponentially higher costs of providing government services to COFA migrants in the decades ahead. And, that almost certainly would have long-term political, economic, and social repercussions for Hawai`i.

Michael Walsh is a Research Fellow in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. The opinions expressed are his own.

Note: This article originally appeared on Pacific Forum.

Image Credit: eyetunes via Flickr CC

Impacted Jurisdictions Need COFA Strategies – 5/21/19

The United States has maintained relationships of free association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau for decades. Over the next few years, the federal government is expected to start renegotiating the terms of these relationships. In a recent article, I argued that the federal government should take this opportunity to redefine the Compact of Free Association (COFA) provisions in a way that maximizes the vital interests of the United States. Similarly, states and territories should take this opportunity to try to redefine the COFA provisions in a way that maximizes their own vital interests. To make this happen, state leaders will need to decide on the future outcomes and strategic approaches that their states and territories want the federal government to adopt. Then, their governor’s offices and congressional delegations will need to advocate for these positions at the national level.

The Compacts of Free Association and associated agreements create a special kind of political and military relationship between the United States and the freely associated States. First and foremost, these agreements establish the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau as sovereign states in the international political system. In perpetuity, they also grant the United States the authority to ensure the security of the freely associated States in exchange for the right of the citizens of those States to work, study, and reside in the United States as non-immigrant aliens. The security provisions permit the United States armed forces access and to deny access by armed forces of other states to the freely associated States. The immigration provisions exempt the citizens of freely associated States from the visa and certification requirements imposed on foreigners by federal immigration legislation. Since these immigration provisions went into effect, tens of thousands of citizens of those States have established residence in the United States and its dependent territories.

The migration of COFA citizens to the United States has had a significant impact on many states and territories of the United States. Consider the state of Hawai`i. There are reportedly 16,680 COFA migrants currently residing in the state. While many of these COFA migrants make significant contributions to their local communities, including the payment of a variety of taxes, Hawai`i also spends a significant amount of state funds on the basic needs of COFA migrants. According to Gov. David Ige, Hawai`i spent an estimated $163 million to provide state services to COFA migrants in 2014. This included over $87 million to provide education for COFA students, $66 million for health and social services for COFA migrants, and $1 million to incarcerate COFA migrants. Unfortunately, these adverse consequences completely overshadow the positive contributions of COFA migrants in the state-level discourse on COFA migration.

The United States Congress has long recognized that COFA migration would impose adverse consequences on American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and Hawai`i. In the Compacts of Free Association Acts of 1985, the Congress authorized the appropriation of funds to cover the costs resulting from increased demands placed on their state-funded services. The Compact of Free Association Act of 2003 went even further by authorizing and appropriating $30 million in annual funds to defray the costs of state-funded services in these affected jurisdictions. It also directed the Department of the Interior to distribute these funds in proportion to the most recent enumeration of COFA migrants in the affected jurisdictions. This funding provision is set to expire in Fiscal Year 2023.

The renegotiation of the COFA agreements provides an opportunity to reconsider the enduring commitments of the United States to the freely associated States and the financial commitments of the United States to the states and territories impacted by the COFA agreements. Over the next few years, as the federal government is expected to start renegotiating the terms of its relationships with the freely associated States, it should adopt a strategic approach that aligns with a desired future for those relationships. States and territories with large populations of COFA migrants have a vital interest in reducing the negative impacts of COFA migration on their local communities. The federal government almost certainly shares this point of view.

There are many strategic approaches that the federal government could adopt to try to achieve that desired future. Each of these approaches carries different consequences for states and territories, making it quite possible that there will be a political struggle over those choices. One approach would be to try to amend the enduring commitments of the United States to the freely associated States. For example, one could try to eliminate the immigration provisions at the center of these agreements. Or, one could try to impose additional restrictions that would reduce the number of citizens of freely associated States that qualify for non-immigrant status. Another approach would be to amend the financial commitments of the United States to the states and territories impacted by the COFA agreements. For example, one could try to authorize the appropriation of more funds to defray (or even reimburse) the costs of providing educational and social services to COFA migrants in the affected jurisdictions. Or, one could try to expand the list of affected jurisdictions so that more states and territories with large populations of COFA migrants qualify for impact funding.

The choice of strategic approach could have a significant impact on the adverse consequences of COFA migration across the United States. Consider an approach that expands the list of affected jurisdictions. Under the current agreements, American Samoa, CNMI, Guam, and Hawai`i count as affected jurisdictions, qualifying them for impact funds to defray the costs of supporting COFA migrants. But, other states with large COFA migrant populations — Arkansas, California, Oregon, Texas, and Washington – do not. This is remarkable given that these states have much larger populations of COFA migrants than American Samoa. Expanding the list of affected jurisdictions to include the other states with significant COFA migrant populations would mitigate the adverse consequences of COFA migration in more states and territories, but it would simultaneously reduce the amount of funding available to mitigate the adverse consequences in American Samoa, CNMI, Guam, and Hawai`i.

As shown by this example, the choice of strategic approach could have a significant impact on the distribution of power and influence across the United States. It is not just that the interests of states and territories with large populations of migrant populations are not the same as the interests of other states and territories with small populations of migrant populations. It is also that the interests of some states with large populations of migrant populations are not the same as the interests of some other states with large populations of migrant populations. The likely outcome is that the interests of many states will not align with the interests of the federal government when it comes to renegotiating the COFA agreements.

The expected renegotiation of the terms of the United States’ relationships with the freely associated States will provide state-level actors an opportunity to shape the desired future that will be pursued by the federal government. All states and territories have an interest in taking advantage of these opportunities. However, states and territories with large populations of COFA migrants have an even greater interest in taking advantage of these opportunities. For these reasons, the senior political leadership of every state or territory should develop a COFA strategy that harmonizes the future outcomes and strategic approaches that their state or territory wants to see adopted by the federal government. Then, they need their governor’s office and congressional delegation to strongly advocate these positions at the national level. This should happen as early in the renegotiation process as possible. Otherwise, their voices might not be heard before the federal government takes a stance on its desired future and strategic approach.

Michael Walsh is a Research Fellow in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. The opinions expressed are his own.

Note: This article originally appeared on Pacific Forum.

Image Credit: Gary Todd via Flickr CC

The United States Needs an Integrated COFA Strategy – 5/11/19

For decades, the United States has maintained special relationships of free association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. These special relationships were brought into existence by international agreements called Compacts of Free Association (COFAs).

Under these international agreements, the Freely Associated States are recognized as sovereign states with the authority to conduct their own foreign affairs. However, the United States has authority for their defense and security. It also has the power to limit the conduct of their foreign affairs with respect to defense and security matters. Separately, most of their citizens have the right to a special class of immigration privileges in the United States, as well as the right to serve in the armed forces of the United States. In addition, the United States has an obligation to provide economic assistance to the Republic of Palau until fiscal year 2024, to the Republic of the Marshall Islands until fiscal year 2023, and to the Federated States of Micronesia until fiscal year 2023.

Over the next few years, the United States is expected to start renegotiating the terms of these special relationships. The executive branch should take this opportunity to redefine the relationship between Free Association activities and the vital interests of the United States.

First, the executive branch needs to develop a National Free Association Strategy. This strategy should represent a single coordinated effort to harmonize the full range of activities that are to be carried out across the United States government in order to achieve the strategic vision of the National Security Strategy through free association agreements with other sovereign states.

Second, the executive branch needs to establish a governance model to execute the National Free Association Strategy. This governance model should establish a dedicated mechanism for coordinating the full range of Free Association activities across the United States Government. This dedicated mechanism should also be tasked with monitoring the extent to which the stated objectives of the National Free Association Strategy are being realized by the United States government.

Third, the executive branch needs to establish an overarching policy on Free Association activities. This policy should not only assign responsibilities and stipulate procedures for the execution of Free Association activities with Free Association Partner entities. It should also establish a common definition for Free Association Partners and Free Association activities to be used by executive agencies.

Fourth, executive agencies need to establish specific policies on Free Association activities that fall under their mandates. These policies should align with the National Security Strategy and National Free Association Strategy. They should also mandate the use of the common definition for Free Association Partners and Free Association activities within their agencies.

If the executive branch makes these strategic investments, then the United States government will be in a better position to renegotiate the economic and programmatic assistance that it provides to the Freely Associated States. This will also put the relevant ambassadors and country teams in a better position to determine the bilateral policy goals and program priorities at each of these overseas posts.

Michael Walsh is a Research Fellow in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. The opinions expressed are his own.

Note: This article originally appeared on The Diplomat.