Arkansas Marshallese community concerned about ongoing treaty renegotiation with U.S.

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The compact that allows Arkansas’ Marshallese community to live and work here expires at the end of the month, and a new agreement isn’t likely before the Sept. 30 deadline.

And while U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, the Arkansas Republican who chairs the committee overseeing the renegotiation, said there’s no need to panic yet, the uncertainty worries Arkansas’ Marshallese population, said Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese (ACOM) founder and CEO Melisa Laelan.

“People keep asking me, ‘What’s going to happen to us? Are they going to deport us?’ There’s still a lot of concern on that,” Laelan said.

Arkansas is home to the largest population of Marshallese residents in the continental U.S. Thousands have settled in Arkansas since the 1980s, mostly in the northwest part of the state, with many finding work in poultry and other food processing operations.

The Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia allow the U.S. to operate military bases in these Freely Associated States in exchange for security guarantees and economic assistance. 

ACOM representatives head to Washington D.C. today for a conference, and Lealan plans to speak with lawmakers while they’re in town. ACOM policy director and communications specialist Michelle Pedro — who’s confirmed meetings with a handful of legislators, including Arkansas senior U.S. Sen. John Boozman — said she wants to let lawmakers know about the important contributions of the Marshallese community.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman (Courtesy Photo)

“We don’t come here to be freeloaders. We come here to be contributing citizens of the United States,” she said. “We come here to be productive members of society, and I think we’ve proven that by working and paying into the tax system.”

The economic assistance provision of the COFA expires for the Republic of the Marshall Islands at the end of the federal fiscal year.

Westerman told reporters last week that the likelihood of fully renegotiating the compact and passing it through Congress by month’s end is “very slim,” but it’s not a reason to panic because steps can be taken to extend the renegotiation process. He also said he’s heard no talk of deportation.

“I don’t see that it’s going to create a lot of hardship and displacement or anything like that,” he said. “I think common sense will prevail … the process will continue to go, and I would hope to have it done as soon as possible.”

Westerman is chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which held a COFA-focused hearing on July 18. In August, Westerman led a congressional delegation visit to Pacific Island nations, including the RMI, that included a hearing in Guam focused on the importance of continuing relations with these countries to counter China’s influence in the region.

Nuclear legacy

Compensation for past nuclear testing by the United States in the Marshall Islands remains a sticking point in COFA negotiations. From 1946 to 1958, the U.S. conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests over the Marshall Islands, including the largest bomb ever detonated by the U.S.

Lealan said some members of the Marshallese community say no amount of money could make up for the damage caused by the testing, so the U.S. should not tell the RMI how to use funds. Others want the U.S. to take responsibility for its actions by including a specific line item for nuclear victim support in the compact, she said.

Americans are an exceedingly decent and generous people. I am certain that most would be shocked and embarrassed if they were to learn about the history and legacy of the nuclear testing program while we were governed by the U.S.

– Jack Ading, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Marshall Islands

Westerman said the nuclear issue has been addressed in the past with funds set up and settlements made. According to a Congressional Research Service report, since the nuclear testing program ended, the U.S. has provided, by some estimates, roughly $600 million for damages, environmental cleanup and restoration, resettlement, and health and medical programs. The RMI claims roughly $3 billion in uncompensated damages, according to the report.

“I trust the folks at the negotiating table will work that out so that both parties are being fair and that the right thing is being done,” Westerman said. “And I will acknowledge that that is a point of contention in the negotiation, but I also believe that will be worked out satisfactorily.”

Eldon Alik, who served as consul general of Springdale’s Marshallese consulate from 2017 until March, said there’s likely no amount of money that can make up for the impact of the nuclear testing, but he wants formal acknowledgement of the history between the countries. 

“I was hoping that the U.S. would finally acknowledge, publicly, what they have done to the Marshallese people,” Alik said. “I was hoping that from the negotiations the U.S. would agree to put in the history books [an] account about what happened with the nuclear legacy.”

Marshall Island nuclear bomb
The U.S. detonated a nuclear bomb 90 feet underwater near the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on July 25, 1946. (Courtesy of the U.S. Army Photographic Signal Corps)

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than half of all cancers for those living on Rongelap Atoll — a chain of small islands belonging to the Marshall Islands — might be attributed to nuclear fallout exposure. Alik said cancer is common among Marshallese families. Both Alik’s parents had thyroid cancer, his mom died of brain cancer and his grandfather died from leukemia.

At the Aug. 24 hearing in Guam, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Marshall Islands Jack Ading said nearly 70% of the children on Rongelap Atoll under the age of 10 eventually developed thyroid tumors while women gave birth to babies who were stillborn or had no spines or limbs.

“Americans are an exceedingly decent and generous people,” Ading wrote in submitted testimony. “I am certain that most would be shocked and embarrassed if they were to learn about the history and legacy of the nuclear testing program while we were governed by the U.S.”

Jack Ading, Ricky Cantero
Jack Ading (left), Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Marshall Islands, testifies during a hearing in Guam on Aug. 24, 2023, while Ricky Cantero, acting secretary for the Federated States of Micronesia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, listens. (Screengrab from livestream)

Ading said the settlement for the Marshallese, many of whom have been exiled from their home, is a fraction of what was paid to Americans affected by nuclear testing in Nevada.

“The sad fact is the U.S. has fallen far short treating us equally, fairly and consistently with the compact,” he said.

Alik said he hopes the U.S. will apologize and take care of the Marshallese community because there are a lot of sick people who cannot get the care they need in the Marshallese Republic.

“I understand that we are the little guys and you guys are the big guys, but be nice,” he said. “Do you have a heartbeat? You are human. Please, you did something wrong to us … It makes me mad because I know what happened. You know what happened and you’re still doing this to me.”

Work in progress

Negotiations to renew compact economic assistance began in 2020. While a final agreement has not yet been reached, the RMI and U.S. signed a Memorandum of Understanding in January that provides for assistance totaling $2.3 billion for 20 years, including a $700 million trust fund intended for various purposes, including for addressing nuclear legacy issues, according to a Congressional Research Service report

The original RMI compact became effective in 1986, with economic assistance beginning in 1987. The RMI signed agreements in 2003 to renew compact assistance, and Congress passed legislation amending the compacts and extending economic assistance for 20 years. 

Compact provisions related to defense, security and migration, and other areas are to continue unchanged. Laelan said she’s disappointed immigration is not being addressed. While the compact makes U.S. entry easier, a pathway to citizenship is more difficult, she said. 

New report urges legislative action to provide SNAP benefits to Arkansas’ Marshallese community

Laelan earned her citizenship by serving in the army. RMI citizens can serve in the U.S. Armed Forces and volunteer at per capita rates higher than many U.S. states, according to the U.S. State Department.

Although final compact terms may not address all concerns, Laelan is hopeful Marshallese migrants’ needs can be met through other legislation, such as the Compact Impact Fairness Act. Co-sponsored by Boozman and Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, the bill would allow COFA migrants to access a range of federal benefits, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, FEMA disaster assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Womack told the Advocate on Wednesday there’s a “moral responsibility” to deliver on some of these issues at the federal level.

“The sad part is that not every state is affected like a state like Arkansas, but we just have a concentration of Marshall Islanders that have settled in Arkansas, particularly in my district, and there’s a need for us to be responsive and to be fair to this particular segment of the population, but it doesn’t capture the attention of a lot of my colleagues because they’re not impacted by it,” Womack said. “It’s not like they willingly, knowingly look the other way, it’s just that [they] probably don’t even know that the issue exists.”

Womack said he’ll have to continue making the case for supporting the legislation and is open to tying the bill or its components to other legislation if that aids in its passage.

“I just think we need to treat them just as we do lawful permanent residents and that’s why those benefits are critically important, so we’ll look for any opportunity there is to include it in any enacting legislation or other vehicles that it could hitch a ride with,” Womack said.

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