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

Bipartisan, bicameral legislation would extend federal benefits to citizens of the Freely Associated States available to other legal Permanent Residents

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) and John Boozman (R-AR), and Representatives Ed Case (D-HI) and Steve Womack (R-AR) 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. The Compact Impact Fairness Act, which was previously introduced in 2021, comes as Congress prepares to consider updated Compacts of Free Association (COFA) later this year. This bill also builds upon Senator Hirono’s legislation to restore Medicaid eligibility for COFA citizens, which was signed into law in 2020.

“COFA citizens are important members of our communities who, despite paying federal taxes, do not currently have the same access to federal benefits as other legal residents in the U.S.,” said Senator Hirono. “The Compact Impact Fairness Act makes good on our commitment to COFA nations and citizens, recognizing their importance to our national security, our economy, and our communities. Importantly, this bill would also provide relief to states like Hawaii with large COFA communities. As we prepare to consider updated Compacts later this year, I will continue working with my colleagues to pass this important legislation.”

“Arkansas is home to thousands of Marshallese citizens who have contributed to Natural State communities,” said Senator Boozman. “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.”

“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,” said Congressman Case. “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.” Case continued, “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 we first introduced in the 116th 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.”

“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,” said Congressman Womack. “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.”

“On behalf of the many Marshallese living in the United, and in particular, those honored to call Hawaii their home, we are proud of the close connection and friendship we share as a community," said Gerald Zackios, Ambassador of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the United States. "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 Hirono and Congressman Case for their tireless work and focus to champion these issues.”

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 that have traditionally stepped in to provide assistance to the COFA community in the absence of federal aid.

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, and other programs that they were restricted from accessing as part of the 1996 welfare reform law.

In addition to Senators Hirono and Boozman, and Representatives Case and Womack, the bill is cosponsored by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Representative Jill Tokuda (D-HI).

The full text of the bill is available here.