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The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 126-132

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Marshall Islands

Kristina E Stege
Embassy of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Washington DC

Marshall Islands journalist Giff Johnson put his finger on the pulse of the nation in an article that described a "year of uncertainty" for the Republic of the Marshall Islands (PMIB, Feb 2003). In the preceding year, renegotiation [End Page 126] of the Compact of Free Association with the United States courted controversy over numerous issues, including immigration, a Kwajalein lease extension, and the adequacy of the new long-term funding package. A tough economic backdrop, as evidenced by business bailouts and increasing poverty rates, set the need for a satisfactory compact package in high relief. In spite of these challenges, President Kessai H Note and his administration made progress on such issues as balanced budgets and health. The biggest test for the Note administration is yet to come, with a looming 30 September deadline for passage of the amended compact package by the US Congress, followed quickly by national elections in November. Again, as Johnson so aptly put it, "the outcome of the first will have a major impact on the second, and the future direction for the Marshall Islands" (PMIB, Feb 2003).

The Compact of Free Association colors nearly every story on the Marshall Islands. Compact funds currently make up 55 percent of the national government budget, and millions more are added to the economy through US federal programs. Compact renegotiations, therefore, received intense public scrutiny over the course of the year. As early as July 2002, the local newspaper ran an editorial decrying the inadequacy of the US twenty-year funding offer of $33 million a year—about $3 million less than RMI negotiators requested (PIR,15 Aug 2002). Keen to move talks forward in view of the September 2003 deadline for approval, the government initialed key economic and defense provisions of the compact in early November. Funds under the initialed agreements are targeted for six sectors: education, health, infrastructure, public-sector capacity building, private-sector development, and the environment, with priorities in education and health. The new agreement also provided for US contributions to a RMI trust fund that, at the end of the twenty-year period, is meant to supplant US grant assistance. The RMI government held back on such big-ticket issues as the adequacy of the grant assistance and trust fund contribution pending negotiations involving the defense sites on Kwajalein Atoll.

US proposals to significantly change nonexpiring immigration privileges in the compact threatened to derail the negotiating process entirely. The US proposals reflected Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) and Homeland Security concerns over the RMI passport sales program, a compact loophole allowing for unmonitored adoption of Marshallese children by US citizens, and the view that Marshallese migrants posed a burden to social welfare systems in the United States. In August, RMI negotiators rejected the first US proposal outright. The next month the issue was kept in the spotlight by a series of articles in the Baltimore Sun that linked the immigration issue to alleged human rights abuses of Marshallese and Micronesians recruited to work in US nursing homes. When the United States tabled essentially the same proposal early the next year, the RMI compact team hired a former INS legal counsel to help hammer out an agreement that addressed US concerns without compromising the right of Marshallese to enter the United States without a visa, to study, work, or establish a residence (YO, 16 Mar [End Page 127] 2003). The two sides broke through the impasse to initial an immigration agreement on 31 Mar 2003. Key changes obtained by the United States included closing the compact door to Marshallese adoptees and passport sales recipients. The Marshall Islands, however, retained visa-free entry for its citizens and the right to establish residence for an indefinite period (YO, 31 Mar 2003). The two sides also reached an agreement on labor recruitment by "de-linking" the labor and immigration issues (YO, 4Mar 2003).

Discussions on an extended lease agreement for the continued use of Kwajalein Atoll by the...