Tony deBrum puts RMI travel rights to USA in jeopardy…again

When Imata Kabua was RMI President, the RMI Foreign Minister was implicated in an illegal scam to sell RMI passports to wealthy Chinese seeking a backdoor into the USA based on RMI open travel rights to America.  One of the Foreign Minister’s surrogates was convicted of corruption.  

In response, the U.S. attempted to severely restrict travel rights between the RMI and America.   The RMI negotiators and lawyers representing President Kesai Note stood their ground and protected the visa free travel, residence and employment rights under the treaties governing the RMI-U.S. bilateral relationship.

Indeed, only recently have many members of the U.S. Congress become aware that both the base rights agreement the U.S. has with the RMI and the visa free travel rights are the most important parts of the overall political and economic agreement called the Compact of Free Association.   That treaty defines the bilateral alliance between the U.S. and RMI in its full and broadest terms.    Of all the benefits provided to the RMI under the CFA, beyond any question the most valuable is the privilege Congress granted in 1985 for RMI citizens to enter, reside, be employed, and go to school in the U.S. without the requirement of a visa or resident alien status.

This extraordinary privilege enables RMI citizens to travel freely between the RMI and the U.S. without a visa and remain in the U.S. indefinitely with no restriction.   The CFA even allows RMI citizens to serve in the U.S. armed forces, which makes training and education available to those who do so, and many RMI citizens have successfully contributed to the defense and security of the U.S. and the RMI, in some cases fighting side by side with our own soldiers against the enemies of America and democracy.

While this visa exemption program has many benefits for both nations, it has resulted in migration of a significant population of RMI citizens to the U.S. for long term residence.   Many of these RMI citizens are poor, but do not qualify for state or federal social services.   Crime and disease are on the rise in some densely populated enclaves of RMI citizens in Guam, Hawaii, Oregon, Arkansas and elsewhere.   

Indeed, in 1999 a boy from the Marshall Islands living in North Dakota was identified as the source of a tuberculosis epidemic that spread to 56 people, mostly school yard playmates.   Currently there is a political debate about how to address tuberculosis among the thousands of Marshallese living in Arkansas, as well as 11 recently detected cases of leprosy.

Many in Washington have been advised that when campaigning in the last election among RMI voters in Arkansas, Mr. deBrum made public statements suggesting that RMI citizens who pay taxes in the U.S. are being treated unfairly because they do not receive the same benefits as U.S. citizens.   So at the same time he calls upon the world community to help the RMI get the U.S. out of Kwajalein, Mr. deBrum seeks to promote a sort of creeping de facto “naturalization” of RMI citizens, whose privilege to reside in the U.S. does not include eligibility for the same federal benefits as U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens.

Indeed, in granting the visa exemption to RMI citizens, Congress expressly provided that residence under the CFA did not count as time in America for purposes of naturalization under the federal immigration laws.   By agitating in Arkansas for benefits and rights for which they are not eligible, Mr. deBrum actually unintentionally raises questions about the long term viability of the visa waiver for RMI citizens.   

That privilege was never intended to result in the de-population of the RMI, or to create a brain drain from the islands.   Nor was it intended to be a backdoor into U.S. citizenship.   After the illegal Chinese passport sales scam was exposed, Congress closed that loophole, but it seems Mr. deBrum is still looking for ways to circumvent the generous privileges Congress granted in the CFA in order to obtain additional privileges Congress did not grant.

Former President Amata Kabua understood the delicate balance of interest that made free association a success.   Mr. deBrum clearly does not.

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