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Womack, Case, Hirono Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Restore Access Federal Benefits for COFA Citizens Legally Present in the U.S.

Washington, DC—May 28, 2021….Congressman Steve Womack (AR-3), Congressman Ed Case (HI-1), and Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) 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 (COFA) —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, like Arkansas, that have traditionally stepped in to provide assistance to the COFA community in the absence of federal aid.

Congressman 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. 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.”

Gerald Zackios, Ambassador of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the United States, “On behalf of the many Marshallese who are honored to call Arkansas their home, we are proud of the close connection we share as a community. This legislation will address a critical priority and ensure families have access to the care and benefits they deserve. We are extremely grateful to Congressman Womack for his tireless work and focus on these issues.” 

Melisa Laelan, Executive Director of the Arkansas Coalition of the Marshallese, said, “This bill will ensure that the COFA communities are protected. It will fix injustices that we have faced over a 25-year period. We applaud the work that Rep. Steve Womack has done to ensure COFA receives fairness and equitable access to programs that we pay into. This is another chance to better lives to many COFA migrants.”

Doug Sprouse, Mayor of Springdale, said “Springdale, AR is privileged to be called “home” by several thousand Marshallese residents. Their positive impact and contribution to our community is immeasurable. In turn, we believe they are deserving of the same access to benefits as all other lawful residents. As mayor, I wholeheartedly support and urge passage of the Compact Impact Fairness Act.”

Bill Rogers, President of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce, said “As home to the largest population of Marshallese outside the Marshall Islands, the city of Springdale is extremely grateful for the assurances contained in this bill for these valued members of our community. The Marshallese are significant contributors to our economy and to the fabric of our culturally diverse city. We applaud the efforts of Congressmen Womack and Case to advance these protections.”

Congressman Case said, “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. 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. There is also no reason that federal law should distinguish between FAS citizens and other legal resident non-citizens in eligibility for these key social safety net federal programs. FAS citizens are important members of our communities that contribute to our economies and deserve the same support from our federal government. The Compact Impact Fairness Act, which I first introduced last Congress, would correct this omission in the 1996 welfare reform law and ensure FAS citizens legally working and residing in the United States are treated basically the same as any other legal resident non-citizen for these purposes.”

Senator Hirono said, “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 over the past year. COFA citizens pay federal taxes, yet they do not currently have the same access to federal benefits and assistance as other legal residents of the United States. This important legislation builds off the success of restoring Medicaid eligibility for COFA citizens last year, upholds the promises we made to our critical national security partners in the Freely Associated States, and assists states like Hawaii that have traditionally worked without a federal partner in supporting this community. 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.”  

Adam Carbullido, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations (AAPCHO), said, “AAPCHO applauds Senator Hirono, Congressman Case, and Congressman Womack for introducing the Compact Impact Fairness Act. This important bill builds on last year's Congressional action that restored COFA citizens' eligibility for Medicaid and allows COFA citizens to access all federal assistance programs. COFA citizens have been unjustly locked out of many federal programs for far too long, which has led to their social determinants of health being undermined and has contributed to their disparate health and mental health challenges. One example of the cruelty of this exclusion is COFA citizens' inability to obtain federal funeral assistance to bury loved ones who died from COVID-19. AAPCHO, our members, and our partners call on Congress to pass this bill and ensure these Pacific Islander communities can fairly and justly access all federal assistance programs.”

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 Hawaii, 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, FEMA Disaster Assistance grants, and other programs that they were restricted from accessing as part of the 1996 welfare reform law.

This legislation builds on Congressman Womack’s previous work to support the Marshallese community residing in Arkansas. He helped secure restored Medicaid eligibility for COFA citizens as part of Congress’ year-end spending and COVID relief measure last year. Additionally, he was a leader in enacting the REAL ID Act Modification for Freely Associated States Act into law – which ensured FAS citizens could obtain driver licenses and identification cards – and has continually supported resolutions highlighting the contributions and unique relationship we have with Marshall Islanders residing in the U.S. 

Congressman Steve Womack (AR-3) has represented Arkansas’s Third Congressional District since 2011. He is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.