Micronesian Immigrants Living in Tent City in Hawaii

August 31, 2015 10:48 am
by David Jakeman

When people think of Hawaii, they often think of pristine beaches, fresh fruit, and a whole host of fun activities in the water and under the sun. But recent stories of an immigrant tent city in Kaka’ako strike a discordant note to that vision. It seems so out of place, but many migrants hailing from the Marshall Islands and Micronesia are finding that life in Hawaii was not what they bargained for.

Micronesian Immigrants’ Special Situation

Many immigrants to the United States find it difficult to navigate the various and complicated sets of legal paperwork required. Immigrants who come from the Marshall Islands and Micronesia often fit into a distinct category. Because of nuclear testing conducted by the United States in the mid-20th century, the islands became radioactive and too dangerous for the people to live on.

Decades later, in order to remedy some of the damage, the United States signed provisions that made up the Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the Federated States of Micronesia as well as the Marshall Islands. The United States was given territorial sovereignty over the islands. It granted residents of the islands the ability to move in and out of the United States. The residents received legal residential status, but they are not considered citizens of the United States. It is estimated that there are 12,000 of these immigrants from the Marshall Islands and Micronesia living in Hawaii at this time. They are sometimes referred to as COFA immigrants.

Hawaiian Tent City for Migrants

Like many issues in immigration, the sad story of the nuclear testing was only the beginning. Many COFA immigrants have come to Hawaii expecting certain services or access to public housing, only to find such provisions do not exist. Instead, they are left to find their way on the street. The group of homeless COFA immigrants in Kaka’ako is estimated to number 500 people, with the sidewalks lined with tents covered in plastic tarps and bikes lined on the outside. Some have even set up televisions, giving the tent city an even more permanent feel.

Hawaii is a collection of islands with limited real estate, and most of these immigrants trying to survive on minimum wage are completely priced out of the housing market. Many of the COFA migrants have received job training, medical benefits, and even child care. But none of these services can make up for the expensive housing that leaves the most vulnerable behind.1

Hawaiian immigration attorneys are familiar with the difficult plight of immigrants coming to the island looking for a better life. While Hawaii may be presented as a paradise, for many immigrants and migrants, it can be far from it. The Micronesian migrants are also part of a larger picture of U.S. actions in the region that have created vulnerable populations for many generations. Hopefully officials can find a way to help those forced to make do with plastic tarps and plastic tents.

1 http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/29049224/state-officials-majority-of-kakaako-homeless-are-cofa-migrants

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