Posted on: Thursday, April 15, 2004

Grant to help state serve Micronesians

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai‘i today will receive official approval of federal “impact aid” to offset the cost of services to roughly 7,300 migrants from Micronesian countries in the state. A blueprint for spending the annual grant is being drawn up.

David Cohen, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of insular affairs, is scheduled today to give the governor an agreement authorizing about $10.6 million. Officials said the money, which will be used to reimburse the state for money being spent on migrants now, is not expected to come through until about mid-summer, after a spending plan is submitted to federal officials.

The state has received federal money to offset expenses before, but this is the first installment under the new compacts of free association enacted by Congress in October that guarantee minimum allotments for Hawai'i, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The compacts are 20-year agreements that let residents of the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands to enter the United States and its territories without visas, in exchange for U.S. military access to the region.

The compacts also have been seen as partial compensation for injuries suffered by people of the former U.S. trust territories, particularly those that resulted from nuclear bomb testing in the Marshall Islands. Migrants have come to Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Hawai'i for treatment of various health ailments, some of them stemming from the nuclear exposure a half-century ago.

Access to health services is the biggest concern, said Ahm Sepedy, president of a Honolulu grassroots organization called Micronesians United. Recently, some have told him they have been turned down for aid for uncertain reasons. For some seeking welfare aid, he said, the cultural gap has proven difficult to cross.

"They ask us questions and we don't know," he said. "Like about our house. Back home, we don't sell your house. Your house is yours forever."

Since 1997, when the state began tracking the effect of migration here, Hawai'i has identified more than $140 million in expenditures for social services to Micronesians and Marshallese, according to the state's most recent report, based on 2002 figures.

Some of these expenses — the effect on police services, for example — are hard to quantify, according to the report, issued by the governor's office. But the state Department of Education was able to calculate a 32 percent hike in spending, to $18 million, on the migrant population for the 2002-03 academic year, largely for teaching children English as a second language.

The state Department of Human Services reported a 20 percent increase in costs, including $4.5 million spent on welfare assistance and $6.7 million on medical assistance in 2002.

The $10.6 million is to cover part of what the state is already spending on migrants during the current federal fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

Late last summer, a special census team was sent to each region due for impact aid. Existing U.S. Census figures, he said, were not detailed enough to support an accurate estimate of the population.

"The team checks all available data to locate Micronesian households and personally visits each household, and questions each household to find other households," Cohen said. "They start with church and community groups."

Cohen acknowledged that Hawai'i is in a difficult stage of the Micronesian migration, while the population is still becoming acculturated and expenses are outstripping contributions. But Sepedy and others point to the low-paying but necessary jobs the Micronesians are taking, filling a niche in the local economy.

Cohen agreed. "People think of the migrant population only in terms of a 'burden,' but we don't calculate the benefit they bring to the areas where they live," he said.

"It's true that in the short run, in many communities it may be a net drain, but that situation improves over time."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.

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