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

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A report released Thursday advocates for extending Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to the thousands of Marshallese migrants who lawfully reside in Arkansas and struggle with food insecurity.  

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families worked with the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese for more than a year on the report, which recommends granting Marshallese migrants SNAP eligibility through one of three pieces of legislation currently under consideration by Congress, such as the Compacts of Free Association. 

After testing nearly 70 nuclear bombs in the 1940s and 1950s that contaminated the Marshall Islands with radiation, the United States signed Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. The compacts allow the U.S. to operate military bases in the Freely Associated States, while FAS citizens may live and work in the U.S. and its territories as lawful non-immigrants.

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. 

“It’s really just a tragic irony that they’re left out of the program that is the most important food safety net that our nation has to offer,” AACF Northwest Arkansas Director Laura Kellams said. “It’s a great irony, but really more tragic that they’re here producing our food for us and lawfully residing here in the U.S. and left out of this important program.”

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First signed in 1982 and effective in 1986, the compacts have been changed several times and are up for renegotiation this year. Arkansas U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman is chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, which is considering the legislation.

SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — could be extended through the Compact Impact Fairness Act, which is co-sponsored by Arkansas Congressmen Rep. Steve Womack and U.S. Sen. John Boozman. The proposed bill would allow COFA migrants to qualify for most safety net programs, including SNAP.

When the bill was introduced in March, Womack said “Marshallese families are an integral part of Arkansas.”

“Across the nation, COFA citizens support U.S. defense efforts, pay taxes, and are core elements of our economy and communities,” Womack said in a statement. “It has long been a priority of mine to address the host of unintended barriers these lawful residents face under the law. This legislation is important to that mission. By instituting another technical fix, we are restoring access to the care and services they are entitled to and upholding our commitments to critical security partners.” 

A third legislative solution suggested in the report is adding a provision extending benefits to COFA migrants to the Farm Bill, which rewrites SNAP policy about every five years and is up for reauthorization this fall. Congress passed a similar solution for Medicaid eligibility in 2020 that had bipartisan support. Sen. Boozman is a leader in drafting the bill as a ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

At 28.5%, the Pacific Islander population had Arkansas’ highest poverty rate reported in American Community Survey data released last year. 

Founder and CEO Melisa Laelan said Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese serves about 700 people each month and estimated 20% to 50% of those include visits to the food pantry the nonprofit started in 2020 in response to increased need during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“[The] food pantry to me is like a bandage, it’s not going to fix the hunger problem that we’re seeing,” Laelan said. 

AACF Pacific Islander Poverty Chart
(Courtesy Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families)

One study conducted by University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences researchers found that the food insecurity rate for Marshallese living in 12 states during the COVID-19 pandemic was close to 80%. The food insecurity rate for all Americans during that time was about 15%, according to a New York University study.

Kellams said it can be difficult to quantify hunger within the Marshallese population because it’s very small and often the numbers are obscured by lumping Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders into one group in surveys like the U.S. Census.

Marshallese migrants were left out of SNAP following the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. In an effort to keep undocumented immigrants from accessing government benefit programs, lawmakers defined those eligible for services as “qualified aliens,” according to the report. Though Marshallese migrants are lawfully residing in the U.S., they’re not defined as “qualified aliens” because they’re not actually immigrants and can come and go without a passport. 

“Marshallese people are lawfully present non-immigrants and so they meet all the other criteria…but the law was just written too narrowly and it left them out and that was just a long-time oversight,” Kellams said.

In addition to U.S. citizens, people living in the country who do have access to SNAP include lawfully admitted permanent residents, refugees, asylees, Cuban and Haitian immigrants, Amerasian immigrants and noncitizens who’ve been battered or subjected to extreme cruelty while residing in the U.S., according to the report.

The American Community Survey estimated Arkansas’ Pacific Islander population was close to 10,000 in 2021; however, advocates say the Marshallese population is frequently undercounted in the U.S. Census.

Kellams said she’s confident legislation is a viable solution for providing SNAP benefits to Marshallese migrants. She points to the 2017 expansion of AR Kids First, a health insurance program for low-income Arkansas children, to children born in the Marshall Islands as an example of a past legislative win, and said 2023 is an historic opportunity to again support this community.

“It’s not very often that we have these three possible vehicles to move legislation as well as support from our Arkansas delegation,” Kellams said. “And then the critical role that our Arkansas delegation is playing that’s pretty rare…we really just can’t end 2023 without correcting this oversight and righting this wrong, and if we do, we will have really missed an important opportunity.”

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