Delegates Amata Radewagen Coleman (R) of American Samoa, James Moylan (R) of Guam, and Gregorio Sablan (D) of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) helped pass the Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) renewal in the US House Committee on Natural Resources, highlighting the ongoing battle between the United States and China for Pacific influence. The COFAs, originally passed in 1986 and renewed in 2003, allow for citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau to work and live in the United States, along with economic aid and specific federal programs, in exchange for American military control of the islands and surrounding waters.
Radewagan cosponsored the resolution as she advocated for a stronger American commitment to the Indo-Pacific Region. According to a press release, the re-negotiated COFAs are “building on America’s unequivocal commitment to deterring malign Chinese influence in the region” as she continues to work on issues of “great import to our fellow Americans in my small and remote island home American Samoa, the center of U.S. national homeland interests in the South Pacific.”
The COFAs expired on October 1 after they were not included in the Continuing Resolution passed to keep the government open. Radewagan added, “Because current Continuing Resolution funding levels are not sustainable, approving Compact renewal agreements is a giant step to continue a seven-decade regional security partnership under the Compact that China’s government actively tried to disrupt in 2018 through 2020.” The COFA renewal will last for another 20 years, providing $7.1 billion to the three countries. Radewagan is currently co-chair of the Indo-Pacific Task Force, working with co-chair Sablan to investigate issues facing the Pacific territories and freely associated states.
Sablan and Moylan initially raised concerns about the renewal, though they joined the rest of the delegates and representatives in unanimously recommending passing the COFAs. Sablan noted that citizens of the freely associated states are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which residents of the CNMI are not eligible for. Sablan, in a newsletter, I support the negotiated compact renewals because of their importance to our national security. Nevertheless, I will continue to work in Congress to obtain equal access to all federal programs for the people I represent.
Moylan was concerned about compensation for Guam, especially in regard to crime related to migrants from the freely associated states. Moylan wanted the Department of Interior to provide more funding for local law enforcement and health care costs. Besides lobbying the Department of the Interior, Moylan has also put forth other public safety requests as the COFA agreements are renewed. He’s asked for assistance from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in moving COFA migrants convicted of felonies to federal authorities so that the local government is not strained.
Other amendments Moylan pushed for included sending COFA migrants convicted of crimes to federal prisons and creating education or employment requirements for COFA migrants in Guam. At the time, Moylan said, “While we anticipate much reluctance with our amendments, either from the opposition party in Congress or with the White House, the reality is that it is imperative that we express the issues with the COFA and its renewals with committee members.”
Moylan also said, “Our team has and continues to place its foot down on the process until equitable solutions are identified. We refuse to be pushed aside.” Congress appropriates $30 million each year to cover costs related to migrants from the freely associated states, providing the funding to American Samoa, CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii. Another piece of legislation that is currently in Congress is the Compact Impact Fairness Act, which would restore and protect federal benefits for migrants of the freely associated states.
While Sablan and Moylan expressed doubts about certain provisions in the COFA renewal, the geopolitical implications of extending American influence against China in the region means it will likely sail through the House. As the tensions between the United States and China worsen, the 20-year renewal will likely bolster the American military presence in the Pacific, foreshadowing further tensions on Taiwan and other issues.