Guam needs a coherent policy on Micronesia issues

The confluence of a series of seemingly disconnected events surrounding the freely associated states in Micronesia, the status of migrants and the erratic emotion-laden debate about Micronesians in Guam combine to demand coherent policy.

We now have over 10 percent of Guam’s population consisting of people originating from the Compact nations. It is time we take stock about our relationship with the nations they come from (primarily the FSM) and the nation that facilitated their arrival (the United States). We cannot keep pretending that we (as islanders from Micronesia) are on the same side when dealing with Uncle Sam. This is a three-cornered issue in which only the U.S. and the FSM are clear on what they want. Guam has no coherent approach.

When we throw “machete attacks,” the homeless, Compact impact aid, “rights” to social services and racial/ethnic tension into the conversation, we are faced with a confusing set of matters to deal with. It is at once a people problem, a regional problem and a national issue. Unfortunately, for us in Guam, most of us only see one dimension of it without understanding what is at stake. Many of us think it is a criminal problem as if the migrants would stop committing disproportionate criminal acts, we would all get along. It is a lot more complicated than that.

First of all, we have to acknowledge that we face serious social and political issues due to the large number of migrants who come to Guam and whose status is unclear. Their status as residents, non-residents, residents in waiting is unclear and migrants like it that way. They get to go back and forth to their home of origin without having to document their status. They have limited access to social welfare programs, but much more access than they do back home. They get to vote in their home elections, receive federal financial aid and are eligible for Guam financial aid if they graduate from a Guam high school.

Their participation in Guam society is a kind of permanent guest. They don’t become U.S. citizens. In the past 15 years, probably less than 20 FSM citizens have become U.S. citizens. Contrast that with the hundreds we read about every year from the Philippines and other Asian countries. They do not automatically become permanent residents, but they can petition for a green card and get on that path. What happens to a society when 10 percent of its population do not want to be citizens of that society? If you aren’t responsible, you are less likely to be responsible.

For Guam, we seem to have terminal schizophrenia about this relationship. When feeling generous, we proclaim that we too are “Micronesians.” We are all islanders and therefore we welcome them to our shores. Of course, this is not reciprocated, because we can’t freely migrate to Micronesia even if we wanted to. When we read about machete attacks, we offer all kinds of pop anthropological explanations about culture and developmental differences which border on ethnic bias.

We also whine about Compact impact aid because it is never enough. If the federal government gave us $50 million next year, would we be willing to accommodate another 15,000 migrants of uncertain status?

Funding is a serious issue, but the base issue remains free and unregulated migration. Years ago, they were labeled “habitual residents,” which sort or reminded me about old terms like “habitual truant.” It is true that rules are in place for this migration (like not becoming public charges), but they are not vigorously enforced.

For local governments, additional migrants seem to result in a call for additional compensation. Addressing migration and government to government relationships seem beyond our capacity.

We also sometimes act like we and the freely associated states are on the same side of this issue with the U.S. government. We are not. Originally, the right to migrate was negotiated in order to allow their citizens the opportunity to attend school and work at the same time. This has expanded far beyond the original purpose. Guam had no role in that original negotiation or ever since. We are just part of the shock absorbers for this new vehicle called the compact of free association (COFA) express.

I am very sympathetic to the concerns of the Micronesians in their dealings with the U.S. and resolving serious issues resulting from their colonial past. But we are in the colonial present and expecting our colonial overseers and the former colonies to take our side on this matter is unrealistic.

We need a coherent policy which addresses more than crime, social dislocation and Compact impact aid. We need to determine what our government-to-government relationships should be with each other as Micronesian neighbors. We also need to present a coherent and comprehensive series of policy initiatives to Washington D.C.

These initiatives should include a clear and serious set of guidelines regarding entry and expulsion from Guam. These initiatives should include a coherent approach to Compact impact aid. These initiatives should include a path to U.S. citizenship or a timeline for this uncertain, habitual residency status. Any society that has a significant part of its population (10 percent for Guam) not involved in the citizenship process of that society is ripe for abuse by all concerned. The migrants will be abused and they, in turn, will take advantage of whatever the system has to give without fully participating.

Guam leaders need to step up. Of course, Guam leaders have to start talking to each other first. These includes all of those in Adelup, in Hagatna and in Washington D.C. If we can’t get coherent and collaborative leadership from them, then no problems are solved. Instead, we will get more press releases with a little face book drama thrown in.

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Dr. Robert Anacletus Underwood served as president of the University of Guam from 2008 to 208. He was Guam’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2003. Send feedback to