Maui News

Hirono, Case and Womack Seek to Restore Federal Benefits for COFA Citizens

June 6, 2021, 7:37 AM HST
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US Senator Mazie Hirono and US Representative Ed Case.

Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaiʻi, Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaiʻi and Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation to restore access to a range of federal benefits for citizens of the Freely Associated States of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau who reside in the United States.

Under the Compacts of Free Association, national security agreements critical to safeguarding American interests in the Indo-Pacific region, citizens of the Freely Associated States are entitled to live, study and work in the United States without a visa and access certain public benefits. However, the 1996 welfare reform law prevented COFA citizens from accessing most federal benefits available to other legal resident non-citizens present in the United States.

If enacted, this legislation would restore access to these benefits for COFA citizens and assist states that have traditionally stepped in to provide assistance to the COFA community in the absence of federal aid.

“COFA citizens have been important, contributing members of our communities for decades, and have served on the front lines of our nation’s armed services and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While they pay federal taxes, COFA citizens do not currently have the same access to federal benefits and assistance as other legal residents of the United States,” Sen. Hirono said. “I am encouraged this legislation enjoys bipartisan support, and I will continue working with my colleagues in both parties to build support to pass it.”  

“It is fundamentally unfair for our federal government to ignore its obligations under the Compacts of Free Association that are national in interest and scope and then impose the responsibility for providing basic services to FAS citizens on state and territorial governments,” Rep. Case added. “Our legislation would address this by requiring the federal government to extend to FAS citizens the same basic federal benefits provided to other legal permanent residents and thus pay for basic services that the states and territories are now forced to provide themselves.”

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“Marshallese families are an integral part of Arkansas. Across the nation, COFA citizens support US defense efforts, pay taxes, and are core elements of our economy and communities. It has long been a priority of mine to address the host of unintended barriers these lawful residents face under the law,” Rep. Womack said. “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.”

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A 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office estimated that approximately 100,000 COFA citizens live in the United States and its Pacific Territories. COFA citizens disproportionately reside in Hawaiʻi, Guam, Washington, Arkansas, Oregon, and California, but also have a sizable presence in Texas, the Northern Mariana Islands, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri, Georgia, Colorado, and Iowa.

The Compact Impact Fairness Act would restore eligibility for COFA citizens to receive public benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Services Block Grants (SSBG), education assistance, and other programs that they were restricted from accessing as part of the 1996 welfare reform law. Last year, Congress restored Medicaid eligibility for COFA citizens as part of its year-end spending and interim COVID relief measure.

The National Immigration Law Center (NILC), Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations (AAPCHO), National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC) have endorsed the Compact Impact Fairness Act.

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