May 28, 2021

Hirono, Case, Womack Introduce Legislation to Restore Access Federal Benefits for COFA Citizens Legally Present in the United States

Bipartisan Compact Impact Fairness Act Would Extend Same Federal Benefits to Citizens of the Freely Associated States Available to Other Legal Permanent Residents

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Representative Ed Case (D-Hawaii), and Representative Steve Womack (R-Ark.) 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 that have traditionally stepped in to provide assistance to the COFA community in the absence of federal aid.

“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. While they pay federal taxes, COFA citizens do not currently have the same access to federal benefits and assistance as other legal residents of the United States,” Senator Hirono said. “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 fully-invested 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.”   

“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,”Congressman Case said. “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 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.”

“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,” Congressman Womack said. “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.”

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. Last year, Congress restored Medicaid eligibility for COFA citizens as part of its year-end spending and interim COVID relief measure.

The National Immigration Law Center (NILC), Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations (AAPCHO), National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC) have endorsed the Compact Impact Fairness Act.

“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,” Adam Carbullido, director of policy and advocacy at the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations (AAPCHO), said. “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.”

"WAO is in full support of the Compact Impact Fairness Act. Senator Mazie Hirono's continuing fight for the COFA migrants in Hawai'i is not only uplifting our Micronesian community in Hawaii but across the nation as well, " Josie Howard, program director at We are Oceania, said. "This bill comes at the prefect time!  Our community suffered greatly by the pandemic. In Hawaii we, Micronesians lost many love ones due to COVID yet we are not eligible to apply for the  FEMA funeral reimbursement relief because were are COFA citizens. Bills like the CIFA brings hope and great sense of gratitude and deep appreciation to  Senator Mazie Hirono and the other supporters of this bill in the congress. I pray that the bill will be well received by both houses and supported by the other congresses from states with great COFA populations, such as Arkansas, Texas, Oregon, Washington, Iowa, Arizona, Missouri, etc."

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