Challenges arise from compact of free association with the US in states and territories

by | Mar 13, 2018 | Federal Government, Headlines | Comments

It was under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 21 in 1947 that the four former German Pacific islands— that had years prior been put underneath the management of Japan underneath the Trusteeship system of the League of Nations— were newly classified as United Nations Trust Territories.

They were the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau and Northern Mariana islands, and managed until 1986 by the United States. According to the UN website, this was “to promote the political, economic and social advancement of the Territories and their development towards self-government and self-determination.”

Today, all of the UN Trust Territories have autonomy and are sovereign states. The Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau and the Northern Mariana Islands are all self-governing. The United States signed with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) the Compact of Free Association in 1986, and then with Palau in 1994. The Northern Mariana Islands chose to become a territory of the United States with a referendum in 1975.

The Compact of Free Association (COFA) was renewed in 2003 for 20 more years—but there has been proposals to end it earlier than that, particularly from the FSM. Begging the question— what exactly are the benefits of being a COFA with the United States?

One of the key benefits is that COFA citizens are able to move freely throughout the United States and the territories with a legal non-immigrant status. With no need for a green card or Visa, those in the COFA are able to work and live within the US and vice versa – US citizens can do the same within the COFA states. Many COFA migrants choose to go to Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands, due to the similar weather and culture. They are able to make use of federal programs as well.

The COFA requires the US to provide defense for the islands, allowing the local governments to free up funds for important resources of development. The FSM still does maintain a small paramilitary force. The COFA also allows citizens to join the US military without residence or citizenship. They also are given assistance under FEMA, the National Weather Service, the US postal service, and the Federal Aviation Administration to name a few.

There is still sovereignty within these islands. The US cannot declare for war for any of the islands. On Palau, the US is not allowed to store chemical, nuclear or biological weapons. While on the FSM and RMI, the US is only allowed to do so under national emergency, in war, or to stop an attack on the US or any of the islands.

With that, it may seem as if the COFA states benefits more than the US. Looking at the security interests that the US has within the East China and South China Sea— it does not seem to be so. The COFA states are located on waters where a majority of trade and energy travels through to get to Asia.

Having a presence in the area also allows the US and allies as well to have more strategic when it comes to a military response. Being responsible for the defense of the COFA states allows the US access and the legal right to train, test and transport military weapons and personnel. And not being able to store doesn’t mean that the US cannot test – as they have for the past decades, conducting at least 67 nuclear weapons tests throughout a ten year span in the 1940’s-1950’s on the RMI.   

The COFA has its effects on both sides of the agreement. To the US, it has constrained already limited budgets. The costs associated to the COFA migrants moving to places like Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands have time after time caused the US Congress to implement “compact impact” funding. A total of $3 million was dispersed in 2017.

For the COFA states, the benefits of the agreement have not gone smoothly at all times. Many complain that the US government is too slow with development aid. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 changed the law so COFA migrants would not be eligible for Medicaid.  The Children’s Health Insurance Plan Reauthorization of 2009 offset the effects of this, but only to children and pregnant women, and states implement it in various degrees. Some states do still offer Medicaid to COFA migrants through state and territory funded programs, despite the Act, but do so with limited budgets. The nuclear testing on the COFA states have also led to many reported diseases, and have led to resentment from the citizens.

The potential loss of the COFA states can lead to effects that will ripple on both sides. With the COFA citizens, it can mean that those who are living abroad will lose their legal non-immigrant status and lose federal benefits. With the US, it means losing a geopolitical tool in times where China’s power is rising.

If the COFA states were to sign an agreement with China, the US would lose regional power overall as well. Territories and allies can decide not to continue their arrangement with the US. As for the COFA states, the potential of siding with China may lead them to a better negotiating table with the US.