Federal Legislation Restores Benefits to Marshallese, at Long Last

The government funding bill that President Biden signed into law on Saturday included a legislative fix that Marshallese Arkansans have fought to pass for more than two decades: restoration of their eligibility for SNAP and other safety-net programs. This new law will undoubtedly reduce hunger and economic insecurity in the Pacific Islander community, which has the highest poverty rate in Arkansas. 

Marshallese citizens were mistakenly excluded from benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) when Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Responsibility Act of 1996 – the law sometimes referred to as the “welfare reform.” The law was intended to ensure that only lawful immigrants would be eligible for safety-net programs, but it left out many people who are lawfully residing in the United States, including Marshallese citizens. It took almost 28 years, and the hard work of advocates from Hawaii to Arkansas to Washington, D.C., to correct that mistake.   

Now that it’s law, Arkansas and other states will need to revise their eligibility requirements for programs such as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. They’ll need to do outreach to the community to ensure that they’re aware that they may be eligible for these safety net programs. And they will have to ensure that citizens of the Marshall Islands, and other Compact of Free Association (COFA) citizens, can be approved for such benefits if they meet other eligibility requirements. (In 2020, a federal law made COFA citizens eligible for Medicaid, but they were still left out programs like SNAP until Saturday.) 

With our Marshallese partners in Northwest Arkansas as well as anti-hunger activists across the state, Arkansas Advocates has been working to educate the community about the need for this change for more than 15 years. In recent years, our state’s congressional delegation has joined the fight. Senator John Boozman and Congressman Steve Womack, both Republicans, worked hard in 2023 and up until recent days to ensure that this proposal would be included in must-pass government funding legislation. It was a truly bipartisan effort. Their Democratic counterparts in Hawaii, Senator Mazie Hirono and Congressman Ed Case, were leaders in this work. 

Arkansas Advocates’ report last year, How Federal Policy Made Hunger Worse, explained why this exclusion was an injustice to our Marshallese neighbors, who are key allies of the United States. Their islands were the sites of relentless nuclear weapons testing that left areas of their homeland uninhabitable. Recognizing this, as well as our own strategic military needs, the United States established Compacts of Free Association with these nations, known as the Freely Associated States. They include the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia. Their citizens have been free to come and go and to live and work in the United States even though they’re not officially “immigrants” as defined by federal law.  

That special status actually hurt them when it came to eligibility for safety net programs, because the 1996 welfare law was written too narrowly. It did not recognize that some non-immigrants were lawfully residing in the United States, like those from the Marshall Islands. People who are eligible for federal safety net programs include refugees, asylees, noncitizens who’ve been battered or subjected to cruelty, Cuban and Haitian immigrants, as well as others.  As they should be.  

But COFA citizens, while living here lawfully, didn’t have that same access even though we have special compacts with them to make up for our nation’s nuclear legacy. 

The 991-page government funding package that Biden signed into law includes a slew of legislation that many Americans are not as familiar with, including language that reauthorizes the Compacts with the three Pacific Island nations. Section 209, titled “United States Policy Regarding The Freely Associated States,” includes a provision called Compact Impact Fairness. It states that, instead of only allowing COFA citizens to be eligible for Medicaid exclusively, they are now eligible for “any designated federal program” for which lawful migrants and immigrants are eligible.  

It’s about time. We celebrate with and offer our deepest gratitude to our Marshallese partners who’ve worked so hard for this day. Thank you, and kommool tata.