April 21, 2024

AnnDionne Seletin usually finished her job as a housekeeper at The Westin in West Maui after 5 p.m., but Aug. 8 was different. With a hurricane passing south of the island and the power out, most guests had packed things out in their rooms and didn’t want to be bothered. So Seletin, her husband and three aunts who also worked at the hotel went home early and drove through Lāhainā in the middle of the afternoon when an inferno approached.

They spent two hours stuck in gridlocked traffic, watching branches fly through the air and the orange glow of flames on the hill inch closer and closer. As a black cloud descended on their line of cars and more people rushed out of their driveways into the caravan, fear evident on their faces, Seletin and her aunts prayed silently, in English and Pohnpeian, the native language of their home island in Micronesia, Pohnpei .

Their prayers were answered that day: They survived the Lāhainā wildfire that killed more than 100 people in the historic coastal town, the deadliest fire in modern American history.

Tourism has ground to a halt. Six months later, Seletin began working with wildfire survivors who were indigenous Pacific migrants like herself: families who had migrated from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. That’s when she learned that despite treaties between their countries and the United States allowing her community to live and work here legally and indefinitely, an error in the drafting of a law 28 years ago prevented them – some of them homeless – get access to help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Now Congress has passed a law that restores access to FEMA and other important federal programs for citizens of these countries living in the US. It ends nearly three decades during which people like Seletin, an estimated tens of thousands, were cut off from government security. net programs.

The community of legal migrants from Pacific Island countries is known as the Compact of Free Association or COFA Citizens. That COFA citizens were not eligible for any assistance is attributed to an inadvertent error in the drafting of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The new law correcting this mistake was included in the federal spending bill passed last month.

Members of this community who were denied crucial support in the wake of Lāhainā’s destruction are expected to be the first to benefit.

“Just to know that there are people who actually care about the COFA citizens, it’s amazing,” Seletin says, the surprise clear in her voice. “We are very grateful.”

The fact that people care surprises Seletin because for most of her life she has heard that people like her are not welcome in Hawaiʻi. Her parents moved from Pohnpei to Maui when she was 6, looking for a better life for her and her siblings. At first, this meant splitting the family up, leaving her older brothers with relatives on their home island more than 3,000 miles away. Her father found work on a pineapple plantation, an experience that echoes the immigrant story so often celebrated in Hawaii.

But there was one key difference. Seletin is a citizen of Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia, one of three Pacific island nations that gained independence and a seat at the United Nations in the 1980s and 1990s after a century of colonial rule.

The United States gained control of the islands from Japan during World War II and supported their independence with the understanding that the US military would continue to maintain strategic power over their lands, airspace and surrounding waters, a portion of the western Pacific region that rival the size. of the continental US The international agreements securing these military rights, known as the Compacts of Free Association, are increasingly recognized as critical to US national security amid growing concerns about China.

As part of the agreements, the US largely maintains an open border policy with the three nations: their citizens can live and work in the US and vice versa with no need for a visa. When the treaty with the Federated States of Micronesia was signed in 1986, people who moved to the US became eligible for the same federal programs, such as federal disaster relief, that long-term permanent residents have access to.

But just 10 years later, COFA citizens’ eligibility was stripped in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. It wasn’t just FEMA: the community lost access to Medicaid and food stamps. They could work legally in the US for decades, but if they suddenly became disabled, they could no longer collect Social Security disability insurance.

Many COFA migrants who moved to the US for work and training never needed these safety nets. But others who were too sick to work, or struggling to raise families on low salaries and high rents, quickly realized they were paying taxes into a system that shut them out when they needed help most.

The Lāhainā wildfire has given momentum to years of community advocacy to reverse this systematic exclusion and ongoing efforts by Hawaii congressional leaders, Senator Mazie Hirono and Representative Ed Case, to restore eligibility.

The bill is included in a broader measure to renew the treaties with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The law provides funding to the states and also extends veteran’s health benefits to COFA citizens who serve in the U.S. military at high rates and were previously denied care.

After the bill became law this month, FEMA announced that it will reopen its cash assistance application window for COFA citizens affected by the Maui wildfires. Agency spokesman Todd Hoose said he’s not yet sure how many people it will help — he’s heard estimates as low as a few dozen people or as high as 200. The COFA community in Lāhainā was small, but growing; much bigger was the Filipino communitywhich included immigrants of mixed legal status. Undocumented people remain excluded of federal disaster cash assistance.

“We don’t have the process yet, but we encourage people to help us identify those who may be eligible,” Hoose said.

Even though there is still so much unknown, Seletin is excited. In the months since the wildfire, FEMA has spent tens of millions of dollars to help affected families stay housed. She knows people who slept in their cars and struggled to feed their children. As a middle schooler on Maui, she felt ashamed to be Micronesian, but now at the age of 24, she is proud of it and wants to continue helping her people get back on their feet.

Rising sea levels, worsening storms and other climate change-related effects are expected to increase out-migration from the island countries, especially the low-lying atolls of the Marshall Islands, to more mountainous islands like Guam and Oʻahu and other parts of the US. The Maui wildfire won’t be the last time members of the Micronesian diaspora need federal disaster relief. And next time they will have the right to receive it immediately.

“This is huge for us,” Seletin said.

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