The article entitled, “The Case for Justice for Micronesians in Hawaii” by Victor Geminiani, published in today’s issue of the Honolulu Civil Beat is worth reading. The Executive Director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice brings much needed light on the discrimination that continues in the government of Hawaii against legal immigrants from the Pacific island nations of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands.
The Case for Justice for Micronesians in Hawaii
By Victor Geminiani
On August 14th, 2009, the Lingle Administration announced that the health care low-income Micronesians had received for the past 50 years in Hawaii would be dramatically reduced and critical life-sustaining services, including dialysis and chemotherapy, would be eliminated.
This was the first time that the general public, along with the Micronesian community, had heard about these dramatic reductions, even though the administration had been preparing for the cuts for the preceding six months. The notice was sent out a mere two weeks before the September 1st implementation date and was written only in English. In addition, the notice just listed those services still to be provided, not those such as dialysis that were no longer going to be covered.
Misinformation and terror ran rampant throughout the Micronesian community as the impact of the cuts on the lives of so many became evident. At that point, about 110 Micronesians were receiving life-sustaining dialysis treatment for kidney failure on an average of 3 times a week. Without the treatment, patients suffer an excruciating death within 10 days. Another 150 Micronesians were receiving chemotherapy and without it, most would die a slow death from cancer.
A few days after the announcement, I met my first-ever Micronesian client when Manny Sounds, a former Lieutenant Governor of Chuuk, asked for our help at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. Hawaii Appleseed is a nonprofit law firm created to advocate on behalf of low income individuals and families in Hawai`i on civil legal issues of statewide importance. Our core mission is to help our clients gain access to the resources, services, and fair treatment that they need to realize their opportunities for self-achievement and economic security.
Manny was 69 years old and had been suffering from kidney failure since 2001. He had been receiving dialysis treatment three times a week for the past nine years. The elimination of dialysis for Manny and the 110 other Micronesians receiving the treatment was nothing less than a death sentence since no dialysis facilities existed in Micronesia. Fortunately, a courageous Federal District Court judge in Hawaii agreed with our request for an injunction against the implementation of the health care cuts finding that the state’s ambiguous and late notice violated basic constitutionally protected rights to due process.
Undeterred, ten months later the Lingle Administration again tried to implement the same reduction in health care. For a second time, the Federal District Court enjoined the state from implementing the cuts. This time, the court ruling was based on a finding that the state violated the constitutional right of equal protection which guarantees fair and equal treatment to all residents in the U.S.
The state was unable to justify any basis for their actions except that it only targeted the Micronesian community because of their alienage or where they came from. Unfortunately, our present Governor, Neil Abercrombie has decided to “own” the Lingle fiasco by appealing this most recent court order to the federal appeals court.
Not to be outdone, our congressional delegation, led by Mazie Hirono and Dan Inouye, has begun an effort to restrict Micronesian entry into the United State, despite their right to do so under the Compact of Free Association (COFA) treaty we have with the three Micronesian nations. Their suggestion that the COFA agreements can be renegotiated to end the right of free entry in the future has little, if any, realistic chance of becoming a reality given the critical strategic benefits the U.S. gains from the control of the various islands of Micronesia and well over a million square miles of waters in the Pacific.
The only justification we are told for both of these government actions is that the COFA agreement is a federal “unfunded” mandated and that the federal government should be responsible for all of the costs associated with Micronesians living in Hawaii. This is despite the federal government already providing over $11 million annually to Hawaii to partially support our state’s costs.
While this battle between our state and federal governments continues, Micronesains are being further marginalized by being held hostage to the current political posturing. The argument repeatedly made by both the Lingle and Abercrombie administrations that the federal government should pay for all of the state expenses associated with COFA migrants might sound logical but it has no likelihood of success given federal budget realities and the unfortunate anti-immigrant sentiments currently in our country.
A limited understanding of the equities involved in the COFA agreements would go a long way in highlighting the failure of our governments to provide justice for Micronesians in Hawaii. After World War II, the United Nations placed Micronesia under the trust of the U.S.
Our country accepted its responsibility to promote the economic, political, and social development, with the goal of eventually providing for self-determination. Soon after, we began testing nuclear weapons which tragically resulted in death and disease throughout the islands. Studies indicate that about half of the cancers caused by the nuclear tests have yet to appear.
A 1961 visit by the United Nations strongly criticized the U.S. for failing to fulfill our various responsibilities under the trust agreement. In 1963, the Soloman report, a presidential committee formed to evaluate our relationship with the islands, found that rather than promoting self-sufficiency, the U.S. had deliberately fostered economic dependency in the islands to maintain strategic control over the geographic region.
With these findings, pressure began building to dissolve the trust and slowly negotiations began with the three island nations that were established to gain their limited sovereign rights. The lengthy negotiations resulted in the three COFA agreements that ensured the U.S. would have the right to maintain military bases throughout islands, control the nations’ foreign policy and exercise sovereign and exclusive control over waters in the Pacific that are larger than the continental U.S. In return, COFA citizens are are entitled to live and work in the U.S., and the three nations are provided with some economic assistance.
Despite their history of nuclear devastation, economic dependency, military services, and relegation of territory, national security, and sovereignty to the U.S., the citizens of the three COFA nations can never receive benefits that all other legal immigrants who qualify can receive after five years. They are the only immigrant population in our country excluded from public benefit programs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, SSI, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families that are often critical to an immigrant’s ability to realize self-sufficiency and achievement.
As with other examples in our history of the denial of civil rights to residents, such as the Chinese Exclusionary Act and the forced internment of Japanese-Americans, we will look back on our current treatment of Micronesians with embarrassment. Micronesians in Hawaii face the multiple barriers to self achievement of language access, acculturation and social acceptance.
It is time for our government leaders to get on the right side of history by creating policies which encourage and support social assimilation. Supportive policies will further our state’s long term interests. To do otherwise will tragically create a subclass of this marginalized population who will likely be here forever. It is Hawaii’s way to proudly welcome new immigrants to our islands, especially those who are making significant contributions every day to our economic vitality and national defense.
About the author: Victor Geminiani is the Executive Director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. He has been practicing public interest law since his graduation from law school in 1969. He has previously served as Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Legal Services of Northern California and Western Massachusetts Legal Services.