The consequences of COFA for Utah’s Micronesians

Story and photos by MARISSA SITTLER

Sitting in a third-grade classroom, surrounded by miniature sized chairs, bright colors and other seemingly “elementary” things can make what is outside of those four walls seem inconsequential. Yet, the words that Melsihna Folau speaks about the Compact of Free Association, or COFA, inside the classroom are quite the opposite.

Folau is a third-grade teacher at the Pacific Heritage Academy charter school in Salt Lake City. She is one of some 2,300 Micronesians living in Utah, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2016. She is Micronesian, born in Pohnpei, but has lived in Utah since 1989 and is married to a U.S. citizen. Folau chose not to become a U.S. citizen, despite being married to one. She says being able to have that connection to her roots holds a sentimental feeling for her. 

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Melsihna Folau continues to work as a third-grade teacher at Pacific Heritage Academy in addition to passionately fighting for Micronesians’ rights.

COFA was signed in 1982 between the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the United States to “provide for U.S. economic assistance (including eligibility for certain U.S. federal programs), defense of the FSM, and other benefits in exchange for U.S. defense and certain other operating rights in the FSM, denial of access to FSM territory by other nations, and other agreements,” according to USCompact.org.

Under the COFA federal law, Micronesians in Utah are not U.S. citizens. This means that they do not hold a permanent ID. They must renew their driver licenses every year, which is a time- consuming process. In a situation like Folau’s, she must take a few hours off from her teaching to wait in line at the DMV for license renewal.

In some cases, she says it can take months for licenses to arrive. For families who do not have relatives already settled in the United States, that waiting period can be harmful to their financial well-being. Folau says, “Anytime you’re new, you know you have to put food on the table, you have to work and with the little money you have, six months of waiting. People don’t understand that six months of waiting, it’s a detrimental thing for a family that is just new.”

 It was not until 2010 that she became aware of the limitations that Micronesians have in Utah. Folau went to renew her driver license at the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles and started getting questioned when an agent told her that she was part of COFA. She was equipped with all the right documentation, but was given a hard time. The DMV agent said, “It’s part of September 11,” and “We need to protect our borders,” referring to the REAL ID Act of 2005. This instance is what sparked Folau’s research into the COFA bill. She heard rumors about the mistreatment of Micronesians in Utah, but did not think much of the gossip at the time. “Stories will be stories until you experience that,” she thought.

The REAL ID Act of 2005 changed everything for Micronesians in Utah. Folau says, “Most of us have been here in the United States for ages, you know, lived, schooled, worked, law-abiding citizens.” The REAL ID Act clumped Micronesians, being under the protection of the United States, as non-citizens who have indefinite stay. “We’re not illegals, we are treated like one. It’s just frustrating for somebody that’s lived here freely all these years,” Folau says about the injustices that COFA has created for Micronesians in Utah.

On Micronesian driver licenses, the word “limited” appears. This draws questioning from state and federal entities. “Banks question you. Any agency that hires you questions you and any cop that catches you wherever you are, questions you,” Folau says. A non-permanent ID can make it difficult for Micronesians to rent or buy a house. “Some people are OK with what we call ‘sardine,’” where families live in very close quarters, but she adds that it can only take a couple years for there to be friction and meltdowns within a household. A recurring question that Folau has is, “Why are these things happening when it’s not necessary?”

Bryan Boaz, who is part of the Marshallese community in Utah, noted in an email interview that COFA negatively impacts Micronesians in more ways than housing alone. Boaz wrote that it affects the Marshallese people in Utah “in employment, school, doctor and all the state and government assistance because of our status.”

Folau and other Micronesians have taken it upon themselves to try to correct the injustices of COFA by working on putting together a bill that is modeled after one that successfully passed in Oregon. Jake Fitisemanu Jr., councilmember for District 4 in West Valley City, Utah, says that their main goals are: 1) to redefine COFA citizens, 2) to obtain permanent state licenses for Micronesians and 3) to extend Medicaid, although he notes that their third goal may be less likely.

Jake Fitisemanu Jr. after speaking to University of Utah students about the Pacific Islander community.

In addition, Folau also wants the bill to recognize the differences of the Micronesian people, which she adds will require a lot of public education. She says, “Yeah, we’re Micronesians, but we’re not one group. We don’t speak each other’s languages. Even here in Utah with a very highly educated population, people are still calling me Polynesian.”

Folau and the others who are trying to re-work the COFA bill have not been able to find someone in Utah’s senate to sponsor it. With support from community resource groups including Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, and advice from the Oregon group of COFA Alliance National Network, they have encountered great empathy and help. Despite this, Folau says, “We are just not moving forward at this time.”

Their next steps entail resilience and perseverance. Folau says the Micronesian group will keep “being patient and going from there. We’re not going to give up, it’s been eight years, so we’ll keep going until somebody sees this is really an injustice.”