By Mike Cohen
"Inequitable reimbursements are inevitable," for Hawaii, Guam and the CNMI. James Moylan, Guam's delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, didn't sugarcoat it.
He told constituents that the Biden administration has no specific budget request for 2024 to reimburse Guam for years of spending limited GovGuam funds on thousands of Pacific islanders who have migrated to the U.S. territory.
Guam, as part of agreements with the federal government and COFA nations, is legally bound to help citizens of the freely associated states on its shores.
"Their mindset is to increase access to federal benefits for COFA migrants residing in the states and territories while infusing infrastructure into COFA nations to reduce the need for migration," Moylan said.
"But we know that will not eliminate legal migration and we know that Guam and Hawaii will continue to be the most popular destination for COFA migrants. We can't blame them as we are known for our hospitality," he added.
Moylan said the Department of the Interior has promised to support Guam. "I had the opportunity to question Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland on the inequities Guam faces with the COFA agreements, and she committed to work with our office on not just previous reimbursements, but on actions moving forward," Moylan said.
Guam, the CNMI, Hawaii and American Samoa are dealing with migrants whose legal status is clear.
But the resources to help them are lacking, leaving host communities to shoulder the cost of social services provided to COFA migrants such as education, food programs, shelter and health care.
The Compacts of Free Association allow citizens of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands to enter the U.S. visa-free.
In a letter dated Nov. 7, 2022, to Congressman Ed Case of Hawaii, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said Guam's total costs for services to FAS citizens was $147 million in 2017 alone. The cost of hosting migrants, she added, represented 15.6 percent of the government of Guam's total budget appropriations for that year.
She said $72 million of Guam's total costs for services to FAS citizens was for education, which was the largest category of costs, not health and welfare; $38 million was for health and welfare, and $35 million was for public safety.
"This data underscores the need for a dedicated funding source for Compact impact cost," the governor said.
Guam received $12 million to $14 million a year from the $30 million in annual appropriation that the territory shared with Hawaii, the CNMI and American Samoa.
Leon Guerrero raised concerns about the removal of the $30 million from the DOI's appropriation for the Compact impact reimbursements.
"While Guam remains supportive of a prosperous and mutually beneficial US-FAS relationship, it is crucial to recognize that eliminating the $30 million appropriation would hinder the government of Guam's ability to maintain payments for our school lease obligations and other social services. The appropriation was the only means that offered partial relief to affected state and territorial governments," the governor said in a letter to Haaland.
"Last week I called Ambassador Joseph Yun, who negotiated the COFAs for the State Department, regarding the status of the appropriation. He stated that he will raise the issue with the Department of Interior. I hope you can rectify the uncertainty and ensure the appropriation will be added into the State or Interior Department's budget, even though the sum is still woefully insufficient to cover COFA migrant costs," she added.
Read more in the May issue of the Pacific Island Times.