As a chuuke interpreter for immigrants to the Federated States of Micronesia, I have noticed a disturbing trend. Over the past six years, more and more immigrants from Micronesia have come to Hawaii for medical treatment, to seek employment and to extend their studies. Even more, due to global warming, many Micronesians will relocate to these islands. Their homes were either flooded or washed away.
But the troubles don’t end there. Upon arrival, their lack of English and their ignorance of government agencies makes it difficult for them to seek government assistance or even understand what services are available. As a result, an already vulnerable population becomes even more so.
Micronesia and the United States are legally bound by the Compact of Free Association. The pact allows people from “affiliate countries” such as Micronesia to relocate to Hawaii and any other state for medical treatment, study or work without the need for a visa.
In return, the United States controls the waters and lands of the Federated States of Micronesia for military purposes. The agreement ensures that immigrants from island nations receive the same treatment as U.S. citizens, including federally mandated language assistance.
But this is a promise on paper. Micronesian migrants are neither equal nor enjoying the same privileges as our neighbors born in the United States. When my family first arrived in 2003 to get critical surgery for my older brother, language barriers prevented us from accessing health care, food stamps and social housing.
Almost two dozen years later, little has changed. Our state largely ignores federal interpretation and translation requirements, such as Clinton Administration Order in Council 13166 or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Lawsuits to compel the government to comply with interpretative guidelines have failed. Five years ago, the state even stopped funding a decades-old language interpreter training and certification program at the University of Hawaii.
Meanwhile, the challenges our immigrant communities face have deepened. I spent the past year as a contact tracer and COVID-19 relief coordinator for communities in the Pacific Islands and Micronesia. The data on these populations reflected what I saw firsthand: Confusion and lack of access to healthcare meant Micronesians represented one-third of all COVID-19 cases in Hawaii, making us five times more likely to catch the virus. Of course, we were not informed; everything about the news is in English.
We need the state government to take access to languages seriously. It begins with the enforcement of civil rights laws and the laws of access to state languages. We need the government to increase support for Hawaii Language Access Office, which was designed to implement and enforce these laws. The OLA should be able to offer in-person interpreters who can come to people’s homes.
They should have the funding to translate government websites into multiple languages. And they should be able to provide limited English-speaking support services in Hawaii schools.
Such measures would change the lives of immigrants in Hawaii. Laid-off Micronesian hotel workers could apply for unemployment benefits, access health care coverage and receive rent assistance.
Language assistance would also increase naturalization rates. It is vital for our economy. Naturalized citizens earn up to 16% more than non-citizens, according to a new report from the New American Economy. This means that they pay more taxes and have more purchasing power. Immigrants here already pay $ 874 million in state and local taxes here and contribute more than $ 17.5 billion to Hawaii’s GDP, according to the NAE. They deserve to be better integrated into our society – and the result would benefit everyone.
Hawaii must evolve and meet the needs of everyone on the island. The University of Hawaii Interpretation and Translation Center, the Hawaii State Judicial Office for Equality and Access to Courts, and the Office of Language Access need to work together.
But they also need the state to commit to providing equal access to government services, supporting enforcement, and starting translating. People need to be empowered, and that starts with communication.