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

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.”

Fighting for Utah LGBT rights involves more than just marriage

Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, works in her office October of 2012 in downtown Salt Lake City.

Story and photo by JAKE GORDON

Fighting for equal rights in behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community isn’t just about marriage — it is much more complex than that.

Brandie Balken, executive director for Equality Utah, expressed frustration that the public views gay marriage as the main issue.

“When we look at what the equality movement is and what our role in the equality movement is, we are really looking at the beginning of a person’s life all the way through the end of a person’s life,” Balken said in a talk to reporting students at the University of Utah on Sept. 13, 2012. “And I mention that because I think in the popular dialogue today, all we hear about is marriage and I have to tell you that there is so much more that needs to be done.”

The LGBT community has to fight hard for the same human rights that straight people generally take for granted. Rights like visiting loved ones in the hospital, transferring health and retirement benefits to a partner and being recognized as a non-biological parent are some things that Balken has had to fight for with the costly help of a lawyer.

“To secure access to your partner (in a hospital), even if you have been married in another state, you have to get a designated beneficiary contract and you need to establish a will and a trust if property is included,” Balken said. “My partner and I have spent literally almost $10,000 with our attorney preparing contracts to protect our home, to protect our life insurance investments and to protect as best we can our child to make sure that she is cared for.”

Tooele County Justice Court Judge John Mack Dow, who practiced law for 21 years prior to being named judge, talked about the differences between rights for straight and gay relationships.

“If there is a husband and a wife then the rights are transferred automatically in the relationship,” Dow said. “But if it is a homosexual partnership then they have to get the necessary paperwork and even that paperwork can be challenged in court by other family members.”

Balken has forked over the money to work with lawyers to become the medical decision-maker for her partner. When going on trips, Balken makes sure that she packs her paperwork and legal documents, just in case something does happen.

Niki Corpron, a registered nurse at Intermountain Healthcare hospital in Murray, said the hospital has strict policies regarding who can or can’t visit during an emergency.

“If someone is brought in by an ambulance and they have a homosexual partner then they aren’t allowed in to visit without the appropriate paperwork,” Corpron said. “If the partner doesn’t have their papers then they have to contact the family and receive permission from them.”

Balken is not only fighting for herself and her own family, but as executive director for Equality Utah she also is working for equitable rights for all in the state. Balken said Equality Utah was founded in 2001 as a political action committee, or PAC. The purpose of a PAC is to help people get elected into office. Equality Utah also fights legislation that seeks to disallow equal rights to gays.

She said that in the nation marriage is basically a state-by-state determination. Some states allow marriage, some states allow civil unions and some states, like Utah for one, prohibits any or all marriages or civil unions. Therefore, in Utah, equal rights are an uphill battle for Equality Utah and the LGBT community.

One piece of legislation Balken mentioned was a constitutional amendment that passed in 2004 penned by Rep. LaVar Christensen (R-Draper), which was called Amendment 3.

“This amendment to the constitution basically says marriage equality is prohibited, civil unions are prohibited, and any other contractual agreements with substantially equivalent benefits are prohibited,” Balken said. “That went before our legislature, was signed by our governor and put to the ballot in 2004 and more than two-thirds of the population of Utah approved that measure. So, currently in the state of Utah, marriage equality is banned in the constitution as are civil unions.”

Balken also knows that it takes multiple approaches to educate the public about equal rights.

“You have to educate the population about the issues, about the language, and about the implications of unequal policy,” she said. “You have to work with elected officials who are seated to understand the importance of equitable policy and to work with them to change that policy.”

Equality Utah works to get more fair-minded people in office, from the school board all the way up to the state house, to sustain achievable cultural change.

Although it is a long road to travel for equal rights, Equality Utah has had some success in passing some legislation. Balken said the organization passed in 2007 a bullying and hazing statute and a hate crimes prevention law.

“Those may seem like small things,” she said, “but . . . prevention of hate crimes or at least acknowledgement of hate crimes as well as prevention of bullying and hazing behaviors is crucially important.”

Standing against Utah’s conservativism, a few fight against HB 497


In 2011, the Utah Legislature passed a controversial bill pertaining to illegal immigration throughout the state.  In subsequent months, outcry from the Latino community and leaders around Salt Lake City, led to a court challenge against House Bill 497.

HB 497, would allow police officers to check the immigration status of most individuals they encounter, making it necessary for those of Latino background to carry their documents with them wherever they go.

And in May 2011, just after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB 497, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the state of Utah. That action suspended the bill, and Judge Clark Waddoups of U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, recently postponed the case, citing that he will wait until the U.S. Supreme Court decides on a similar bill from Arizona.

While the courts will ultimately decide the fate of HB 497, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank and other opponents have urged the courts to consider the problems a bill of this nature could create for officers.

“I should not take into account who [citizens] they are, what language they speak, the color of their skin, where they might be from, and all those other things.” Burbank said.  “We all have these biases built into us. But does that hold true? Absolutely not.  And if officers start using that [biases] as a basis to make enforcement decisions, that is wrong.”

Burbank also let his thoughts be known in a Feb. 16th op-ed column in The Salt Lake Tribune, the day before Waddoups moved to suspend the bill.  Headlined “ ‘Papers-please’ law would harm all Utahns,” Burbank pleaded for the judicial system to block HB 497.

As Burbank—2011 recipient of the Tribune’s “Person on the Year” honor, spoke the same day his column was printed, he reiterated the overriding sentiments toward  the issue. And more specifically, he addressed the influence HB 497 would have on the growing Latino community in the state of Utah.

“In Salt Lake City, last year’s census had 22.5 percent of the population being documented as being Hispanic or Latino,” Burbank said. “The school census, when you look at the enrolled children in school, that number is about 31 percent of the population.  And to alienate one-third of the population is ridiculous.”

Passing by 59-15 in the Utah House and 22-5 in the Utah Senate it was clear that lawmakers overwhelmingly supported HB 497. However– like Burbank–not all Utah leaders were on board with the controversial bill.  Rep. David Litvack D-Salt Lake City, agrees that HB 497 would only create unnecessary issues for police officers and citizens alike.

“I think it does a disservice to the entire community,” Litvack said. “You can’t resolve immigration issues through enforcement only, it’s misleading.  And as far as law enforcement, as well as the immigrant community, it puts them in a very compromising position. Law enforcement relies on a good relationship with the entire community, including the undocumented community.”

Being one of the 15 House opponents to the bill last legislative session, Litvack adamantly defended his decision to vote against a bill that many supported.

“My big concern for witnesses of crime, is how willing they will be cooperate, to speak with law enforcement if their big fear is that they’re going to be arrested or deported,” Litvack said.

And while HB 497 has clearly been met with resistance from some, in the end, the law must really be about guaranteeing the safety and rights for all those who live in the state of Utah, Burbank wrote in his guest column.

“In order to perform our job effectively, all people – including those who lack authorization to be in this country – should feel confident approaching police officers and coming forward as victims of or witnesses to crime without fear this interaction may lead to an investigation of their immigration status.”

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