GAO: Compact migration increased 68% over 5 years

HEALTH CARE COSTS: The Northern Region Health Center in Dededo is shown on June 2. The Government of Guam has reported $32 million in health care costs for Compact migrants in 2017 alone. Kevin Milan/The Guam Daily Post

The number of migrants from the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau increased by 68% from about 56,000 to about 94,000 in five years through 2018, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday.

The report was submitted to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

It shows Guam is taking the greatest impact of the migrations, now hosting about 18,900 migrants from the island nations. About 11% of Guam's population are migrants from the Compact nations.

Hawaii does have more Compact migrants, at 24,700, but with Hawaii's population of about 1.4 million, Compact migrants make up only 1.7% of the state's population.

In the report, Guam reported $147 million in costs associated with providing public services to the regional migrants in 2017. Other jurisdictions reported costs for 2018 but the government of Guam did not submit for 2018, according to the federal report. Guam gets federal reimbursement for only about 10% of its reported costs.

Local governments have been at odds with the federal government on how to calculate the cost of reimbursements. While the Department of Interior has said there should be some accounting of FAS migrants who contribute to the local community, they have not provided guidance on how the data should be compiled and presented. 

The Government of Guam requested reimbursements in 2017 for Compact impact costs for:

  • Education – $72 million
  • Health – $32 million
  • Public safety – $35 million
  • Social services – $7.8 million
  • Total requested by Guam: $147 million

Guam has reported $1.2 billion in total estimated Compact-impact costs from 2004 to 2017.

While Compact migrants continue to emigrate for better economic and education opportunities, the federal government under the 1986 Compact of Free Association between the United States and the FSM and the Marshall Islands, respectively, provided about $2.6 billion in funding for fiscal years 1987 through 2003 to the island nations. In 2003, the United States approved amended Compacts of Free Association with the two countries.

According to the Department of the Interior, economic assistance under the amended Compacts is projected to total $3.6 billion to the FSM and the Marshall Islands between 2004 through 2023. The FSM and U.S. governments are engaged in ongoing talks for the economic provisions of the Compact.

The GAO report states host jurisdictions have noted to the federal government that the Compacts "represent a federal obligation and expressed a belief that the federal government should take care of Compact migrants."

According to some health care providers, the United States' treatment of the Compact migrant population in U.S. areas could affect the island nations' Compact negotiations with the U.S. government. State government officials also suggested that allowing Compact migrants access to more federal benefits would help alleviate the migrants' impact on states and territories.

While the Compact negotiations between the U.S. and the FSM are ongoing, the economic provisions of the Compact are subject to change but the immigration provisions are not expected to.

Still, Compact migrants interviewed for the report, according to GAO, "expressed concern that they might have to leave the United States in 2023."

"For example, in one (freely associated states) community we visited, community members registered confusion about whether provisions of the Compacts – including migration provisions – are scheduled to end in 2023 and whether FAS citizens in U.S. areas can become U.S. citizens," the GAO report states. "One community member expressed concern that Compact migrants would be 'chased' out of U.S. areas after 2023 and that 'all of their rights' under the Compacts would be revoked."

Issue of public charge

Members from the migrant community "also sought clarification about the implementation of the (Department of Homeland Security) rule for considering public charge while determining admissibility," the GAO report states. 

Under the Trump administration, migrants can be refused entry if they are likely to rely on public welfare, also known as a public charge.

According to the DHS final rule, Compact migrants entering the United States under the terms of the compacts of free association are not exempt from the public charge ground of inadmissibility, the GAO stated. According to Customs and Border Protection officials, the public charge inadmissibility regulation does not change how CBP will inspect applicants for admission. 

The GAO report states the Compact migrants tend to hold entry-level and low-skill jobs in Guam and have high turnover rates, according to representatives from one company. Several businesses in Guam were founded by, or cater to, compact migrants, according to private sector representatives.

Guam Chamber of Commerce representatives indicated that compact migrant workers would not be easily replaced if they were no longer eligible to work in Guam and that hiring other foreign workers in Guam involves difficult visa processes, according to the GAO report.

Health and public safety

While Compact migrants have been contributors to the workforce and Guam economy, local law enforcement agencies report on crimes committed by, or attributed to, Compact groups.

"Guam private sector representatives we interviewed expressed a belief that social tension with the (Compact migrant) communities was driven in part by some Compact migrants' public drunkenness or violence. In addition, language barriers can hinder Compact migrants' social integration into receiving communities," according to the GAO, quoting Guam law enforcement officials.

The GAO report also states the Medically Indigent Program pays for health care costs of primarily non-U.S. citizens living in Guam, including compact migrants, who do not have other health insurance. "Most Compact migrants in Guam qualify for this program after meeting the six-month residency requirement," according to the GAO report, quoting Guam officials.

In fiscal year 2019, Compact migrants participating in the program numbered 8,616, according to Guam officials, and made up 73% of the program's total participation. The officials said that the program is also funded through Guam local appropriations and federal Medicaid Undocumented Emergency Services funding, according to the GAO.

$280K economic analysis

In 2019, Interior awarded the Guam government a technical assistance grant for $280,000 to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine Compact migrants' economic contribution to the local economy.

The grant was awarded to the Guam Bureau of Statistics and Plans, which contracted with the University of Guam consultants to carry out the work beginning in October 2019. Guam officials expected this work to result in two reports: one identifying economic contributions by Compact migrants, expected in September 2021; and another proposing a methodology for determining Compact impact costs, expected in August 2022.

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