One of the most meaningful experiences during my time at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders was helping to organize a roundtable on integration with the White House Domestic Policy Council in Honolulu, Hawaii last August. For most of my career, it has been difficult to draw attention to small, underserved communities in the Pacific Islands and highlight their positive contributions to this country. In this instance, the Administration was at our doorstep, listening, learning, and proactively thinking about ways to meet our community’s needs regarding integrating newcomers and assisting those who want to learn and work in America. It was a humbling and inspiring experience.
I am highlighting this roundtable for a special reason: we got results. There were clear deliverables that we have acted on and make me proud to serve in this Administration. My experience with this roundtable is a demonstration of how government can put words into action.
One of the biggest issues articulated at the roundtable was the impact of U.S. immigration laws under the Compacts of Free Association (COFA). These are bilateral agreements between the U.S. and the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau, which allow citizens of these countries visa-free access to live and work indefinitely in the U.S. in exchange for the U.S.’ unrestricted access to their lands and waterways for strategic purposes. Community leaders expressed how COFA migrants are experiencing difficulty obtaining or maintaining jobs due to challenges with E-Verify or the Form I-9, both methods by which an employer can verify that an individual is legally authorized to work in the U.S.
The Department of Justice’s Office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Verification Division responded by taking immediate steps to improve their outreach and policy. USCIS, with collaboration from OSC, issued special Form I-9 and E-Verify guidance for employers who hire individuals from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau.
The policy clarifies:
(1) That COFA nationals are authorized to work indefinitely,
(2) What documents employers can ask COFA nationals to provide without discriminating against them, and
(3) How employers should complete a Form I-9 with regards to a COFA national seeking employment.
USCIS’ COFA guidance also provides instructions to employers using E-Verify on its public website and on the E-Verify users’ homepage as an E-Verify News Article. The community views this new guidance as a significant development to addressing their confusion regarding verification.
This week, DOJ OSC will deployed a staff member to conduct employer and worker seminars in Hawaii specifically around these issues. The sessions will occur on January 9 and 10 in Lahaina and Wailuku, in partnership with community-based organizations. OSC’s outreach materials are also posted on their website.
Due to this great federal agency work, COFA migrants will be able to better integrate into the economic and social fabric of America, which is a key goal of the Administration’s efforts to build a 21st century immigration system that meets our nation’s economic and security needs.
The biggest lesson I have learned is that engagement is only meaningful when we listen to the community’s recommendations on how to leverage the power of our government to meet their needs. America is great because it is a nation of immigrants enriched and strengthened by our diversity. As a newer group of migrants, some COFA citizens are struggling, but they have as much to offer this country, and are already doing so, as do generations of previous immigrants.
I am grateful for the leadership of the White House, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and most of all, my fellow community members and organizations who are in the trenches every day helping workers and families. Together, we can get things done and maximize our community’s contributions to our country.
Ryan Edgar is a Policy Specialist in the Office of Insular Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior.