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Thoughts and prayers for Guam: CIFA meets COFA

These Islands By Robert Underwood

During the past year, there have been several dramatic statements and legislation related to the renewal of the Compacts of Free Association and Compact Impact Fairness Act. The main problem is that none of these statements or legislation have seen their way to public law or policy changes. Perhaps of even greater significance, these efforts are revealing cleavages between all of the participants.

On multiple sides are the various players. COFA states are at the precipice of real financial difficulties if the compacts aren’t approved. The compacts were supposed to be part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which funds the Department of Defense. At a policy level, it seems to make sense. At the federal government's bureaucratic level, it doesn’t make sense. But then again nothing seems to make sense in the federal government anymore.

The intensity of the support for the compacts and their connection to the “Chinese threat” is pretty obvious. What isn’t obvious is where this funding should come from. Is it new money? Does it need offsets? Does any of this really matter?

When the U.S. Congress elected a new speaker, there was a learning curve among new players. That curve might be extended and confounded by arguments over funding new assistance to Israel, Ukraine and the amorphous “Indo-Pacific” designation.

For us in the amorphous and ever-expanding “Indo-Pacific,” any argument will do as long as the funding comes about. Predictions that war over Taiwan becomes more imminent if the COFA agreements aren’t funded will continue to be made. Everything gets added to the corpus of those arguments ranging from illegal Chinese “sneaking” into Guahan from the Northern Marianas to Chinese officials waiting to jet their way to Kolonia, Majuro and Koror.

Of course, the massive military build-up in Guahan is connected to this strategic competition and continues unabated. Despite numerous doubts being expressed about the viability of the proposed enhanced integrated air missile defense system, the activities and arguments continue.

The response of Guahan's elected officials centers around attempts to “leverage” the interest of the Department of Defense's activity to support general infrastructure issues on the island they lead. Apparently, there is a little confusion about what they are trying to leverage and perhaps a misunderstanding of what “leverage” means.

To somebody in the State Department and the Pentagon, all of these activities may appear to be coherent. But that coherence falls apart in the islands themselves. Are Guahan and the COFA states on the same side? Can COFA states support Guahan in its attempts to “leverage” the interest of the military? Can the COFA states support Guahan’s efforts to maintain specific compact impact assistance for Guahan?

Apparently, the answer is no. This is where the Compact Impact Fairness Act, or CIFA, enters the picture. This is the effort to give COFA migrants the same treatment given to U.S. citizens and permanent residents in terms of individual benefits in the United States. They will get Supplemental Security Income, food stamps and access to federal programs that are not available to U.S. citizens in Guahan or the Northern Marianas. The irony wants to jump out at you and gobble you up.

CIFA simultaneously eliminates specific compact impact assistance, which Guahan has received for decades. Guam Del. Jim Moylan introduced legislation that would restore this funding. Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero supports this measure.

The Department of the Interior spoke against the bill while expressing sympathy for the plight of Guahan. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, but our policy is not. Sounds familiar?

CIFA and COFA are simultaneously good for the 50 states. Hence, the great collaboration between Arkansas and Hawaii in Congress. Both states have sizeable Marshallese communities. Guahan does not. Maybe that is the answer.

Well, it isn’t.

COFA nations are continuing to hope for the best and will likely get the compacts through whether or not China attacks Taiwan. They just have to figure out how to take advantage of the interest in Ukraine and Israel while maintaining that they are different. It is tough and confusing.

In the meantime, they are enthusiastically supporting the passage of CIFA because they are sort of Americans. They want COFA migrants to receive U.S. citizen-like treatment because of the close connection to the U.S. and military enlistment rates by COFA citizens. They are muted when it comes to Guahan’s quest for the continuation of compact impact aid. Their thoughts and prayers are with Guahan, but their official statements and policy are not. I know that they privately support Guahan. But that just adds to the thoughts and prayers aggravation.

There will be summits of Micronesian leaders coming up this year. This will include Guahan and the CNMI. They will inevitably issue communiques and statements about important policy matters. Perhaps both CIFA and COFA will have been resolved by then. But there will be joint proclamations about climate change, fishing regulations, military activities and, perhaps, air service.

When it comes to migration issues and their financial effect, all of them will say that the U.S. government has been derelict. When in doubt, blame them and avoid exposing the cleavages. Furthermore, when it comes to specific assistance for Guahan, there will be lots of thoughts and prayers. Amen.


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





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