Womack & Boozman Lead Legislation to Restore Access to Federal Benefits for COFA Citizens Legally Present in the U.S.
Washington, March 14, 2023
Washington, DC—March 14, 2023….Congressman Steve Womack (AR-3) and U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) are leading bipartisan, bicameral legislation along with Congressman Ed Case (HI-1) and U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) 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.”
Senator Boozman said, “Arkansas is home to thousands of Marshallese citizens who have contributed to Natural State communities. Since 1996, COFA citizens have paid taxes as lawful permanent residents without receiving the benefits they are entitled to under this agreement. The Compact Impact Fairness Act would remove technical barriers to better serve their needs, all while maintaining our commitment to these lawful residents as a key component of U.S. national security efforts in the Pacific.”
Gerald Zackios, Ambassador of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the United States, said, “On behalf of the many Marshallese living in the United, and in particular, those honored to called Arkansas their home, we are proud of the close connection and friendship we share as a community. This important legislation will address a critical priority and ensure families have access to the care and benefits they deserve, especially as our two countries are in negotiation to further strengthen the special and unique partnership we share under the Compact of Free Association. We are extremely grateful to Senator Boozman and Congressman Womack for their tireless work and focus to champion 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 and Senator Boozman have 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, “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 Senator Boozman and Congressmen Womack to secure these protections.”
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 in 2020. 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.