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Compact Fairness Act is unfair to Guam



These Islands By Robert Underwood

There is legislation moving through Congress in combination with the Compact of Free Association agreements entitled the Compact Impact Fairness Act, or CIFA. These are identical bills in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1571) and the U.S. Senate (S. 792) that purport to give U.S.-citizen or permanent-resident-like treatment to compact migrants who reside in the United States.


The bills that would amend the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, commonly referred to as the "Welfare Reform Act of 1996," clarified that COFA migrants were not permanent residents eligible for federal programs.


This attempt at “Compact Impact Fairness” is manifestly unfair to Guahan even while it is necessary for COFA migrants. It ignores the real impact on Guahan and places the concerns of states ahead of the island territory. Ho-hum. This is not unusual. The Biden administration has somehow agreed that this piece of legislation resolves issues. The Department of the Interior released a statement on May 5 stating its support for this legislative solution to compact impact aid issues.


This is reflected in the DOI’s budget request for the insular areas. It no longer includes “compact impact aid.” The Office of Insular Areas budget request went down from $748 million in 2023 to $711 million in 2024. Meanwhile, the proposed budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs went up by $306 million. Conveniently, the mandatory outlay for compact impact aid runs out at the end of this fiscal year.


In a March 23 joint release, four senators from Hawaii and Arkansas and Rep. Ed Case from Hawaii explained the importance of the bill. The release recognizes the importance of the COFA states “to our national security, our economy and our communities.”


It further highlights that the legislation will provide relief to states like Hawaii with large COFA migrant populations. The twin features of this justification need careful analysis.

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It is a very smart legislative strategy to tie the CIFA legislation to the renewal of the compacts. The compacts must be enacted this year and nothing seems to generate interest in the Pacific more than the competition with China. Linking the renewal of the compacts to national security is pretty easy. Linking national security to COFA migrant status is harder but still an easy lift. This same CIFA legislation was attempted in a previous Congress, but with no success. There was no national security urgency then.


As for Hawaii bearing the brunt of COFA migrant costs, Guahan knows better. In a 2020 GAO study, the conditions of the COFA migrant population were studied in great detail. With a significant margin of error, the report stated that Hawaii had 24,755 migrants whereas Guahan had 18,874. Washington State (7,270) and Arkansas (5,895) were the next two states in line. The proportionate impact was not discussed. It needs to be.


In comparison, COFA migrants account for 11 percent of Guam’s population, and 1.7 percent of Hawaii’s. If Hawaii had the same proportion of migrants, the total number would be 154,000. Of course, Hawaii also has two senators and two House members. That makes their numbers much more significant than Guahan’s condition as represented by a non-voting delegate. I know the difficulties of that task.


This is not to dispute the real difficulties faced by COFA migrants. Their status is not clear to many states or communities. They face problems with securing copies of the I-94, which document their presence and rights within the United States. They are denied jobs and subjected to delays in securing basic health care services due to ignorance, sometimes willful, about their unique standing in American society.


I have assisted many national organizations and I have explained their situation to officials in the Biden administration. There are real people-to-people problems experienced by COFA migrants, our fellow islanders.


But this is a policy problem caused by ignorance of what COFA means. It is further complicated by ignorance, perhaps willful, of the concerns of small territories. The impact on the delivery of basic services and community services like education, police protection, waste disposal and recreation in a territory that does not get full federal funding (as in states) for these services is great, especially when considering the proportionality of the numbers.


Under CIFA, COFA migrants would be eligible for all federal programs in the same way as permanent residents and U.S. citizens. According to the East-West Center’s Bulletin No. 653, COFA migrants would be eligible for federal programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, and Social Block Grant without a five-year waiting period. This is U.S. citizen-like treatment. Normally, permanent residents have to wait five years.


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How this intersects with U.S. citizens in the territories is not clear. Does this mean that COFA migrants in the U.S. territories can obtain SSI while citizens in the territories do not? The definition of the “United States” is key. Does it include the territories? It would be ironic if U.S. citizens in the territories finally get SSI based on the presence of COFA migrants.


If Guahan is not included in CIFA, it would be an added inducement for COFA migrants to go to the 50 states or the District of Columbia. I wonder how Puerto Rico views this situation.


Interior Secretary Haaland and Assistant Secretary Cantor visited all of these islands in July.


This includes Guahan, the Northern Marianas and COFA states. Perhaps due to airline scheduling, the ground time in Guahan was the shortest. The treatment of Guahan came up in discussions with Gov. Lourdes Leon Guerrero and Del. James Moylan. According to their offices, they directly stated the need to address compact impact aid as an ongoing issue for Guahan. Moylan wants to continue it for another year even as he cosponsored HR 1571.


Gov. Leon Guerrero made her case directly with Haaland on Liberation Day in Guahan. Both have indicated their concerns in the past few months. This tag team effort has to include the Guam legislature and perhaps our friends in the Northern Marianas.


If it isn’t successful, debt service payments for five leased schools in Guahan could be at risk. Equity and equality are always part of the conversation of any policy issue under the American flag. I submit that nowhere is it as convoluted or rife with inequity as in these islands.


Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to anacletus2010@gmail.com.



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