Marshallese Immigrants in Washington

September 14, 2015 11:29 am
by David Jakeman

It is an unfortunate fact, but most Americans do not know much about their history. If you were to ask an Americans where the Marshall Islands are, a majority would probably have no idea. Yet US history and the Marshall Islands are linked in inextricable ways. Of course, the fact that many people in the United States do not know anything about this shows the privilege of being a member of a giant superpower that bumps up against smaller neighbors all the time. In order to understand why Seattle and Hawaii immigration lawyers are seeing more immigrants of Marshallese origin, a little history lesson is in order.

Marshallese Immigrants’ Ties to US

The Marshall Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean. During World War II, the United States military took over the chain of islands in the 1940s when battling the Japanese in the Pacific. Japan had expanded its power throughout the Pacific during this time period in an attempt to create its own sphere of influence that could ward off Western powers. Some have called this mimetic imperialism, or imperialism that copied the ways of Western powers in order to try to maintain some semblance of independence from the outside world.
The United States took the Marshall Islands from Japan and then used the islands to test nuclear bombs over the next decades. As you can imagine, detonating nuclear devices not far from an island chain had a significantly negative impact on the islands and their inhabitants. Many places were evacuated, and the Marshallese have fought to this day for compensation for the hubristic blindness of US nuclear testing.

Special Status for the Marshallese

Hawaii immigration attorneys are well aware of the special status given to the Marshallese, who began coming to the United States in 1986, when the country finally got the United States to sign a deal called the Compact of Free Association. Those who are a part of this agreement are called COFA immigrants, and they are allowed to inhabit, move, and work throughout the United States indefinitely.

Such provisions might seem generous, but they came nearly forty years after the United States dropped nuclear bombs, so the concessions were rather late in coming. Many Marshallese have come to Hawaii, where they have relatives who have already made the journey, but life isn’t always easy, and they do not have access to the same government assistance programs that provide a safety net for those trying to make ends meet.

Marshallese immigrants have begun coming to places in Washington State, which some Seattle immigration attorneys have noted. Places such as Spokane, Kent, Federal Way, and Auburn have seen an influx of those of Marshallese backgrounds settling in their areas. While the Marshallese are not in the same vulnerable situation as undocumented immigrants, they have unique challenges as well. They can often feel like they’re trapped in a limbo stage where they are never quite fully citizens.1

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