Marshallese Migration: Considering Environmental, Legal, and Moral Connectivities

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

What events, circumstances, and perspectives have ongoing impacts on migrants’ lives, and how can we better understand the complexity of this ongoingness?

Photo Credit: Kees van der Geest
Photo Credit: Kees van der Geest

In the Marshallese context, environmental, legal, and moral connectivities have been unfurling for more than 70 years, giving unique form to the ongoing relationship between the Marshall Islands (RMI), Marshallese migrants, and the United States.

It is difficult to entirely separate profound environmental disruptions like U.S. nuclear testing or the acceleration of climate change, legal arrangements such as the Compact of Free Association (COFA) or various U.S. state policies toward COFA citizens, and the various calls to ethically address both past injustices and present-day predicaments faced by Marshallese people. These factors overlap despite the different timetables over which each has unfolded. On the other hand, it is also challenging to bring all these vectors of influence into meaningful relation without being either too ambiguous or too ambitious, diminishing the capacity for productive discussion about the interlocking issues that have applicability for migration with dignity today.

Our article,The Ongoingness of Migration: Marshallese Well-Being in the United States,” authored by Juno Fitzpatrick, Kees van der Geest, and myself, makes an intervention within this complicated landscape by arguing that we need to be attentive to the ways that ongoing issues inform the well-being of contemporary Marshallese lives. We also highlight and lend precision to this concept of ongoingness in migration. Our paper shares the results of a series of qualitative studies of the Marshallese experience of living in the United States, conducted over more than five years.

In particular, we share our conversations with Marshallese migrants and other knowledgeable stakeholders about three aspects of ongoingness: 1) the (un)changing nature of Marshallese relationships with their home islands and atolls, including in the face of climatic change, 2) the evolving relationships Marshallese migrants have with various legal landscapes that are spread across the multiple locations in which they live, and 3) the notions and practices of responsibility and repair Marshallese migrants feel are appropriate in their ongoing relationship with the United States.

In the first part of our paper, we share findings from an extensive research project on climate-induced migration, which included a focus on Marshallese well-being in so-called “destination states” like Hawai'i, Oregon, and Washington. Here, we report on how Marshallese migrants represented their lives in the United States compared to those they had lived in the RMI, by way of eight metrics of well-being, including health care, social services, employment, education, and food security. Our findings brought up both indicators of improvement and ambivalence.  Migrants reported the most positive changes to their well-being in the areas of health care, employment, social services, and education, but respondents were more neutral or negative about changes to their safety as well as in housing and purchasing power, and gave numerous accounts of barriers to employment, instances of disrespect and discrimination, and the need for government support in the United States.

We also sought to understand whether there were instances of shared thinking across Marshallese migrants, and if climate concerns factored among these other concerns for well-being. In the Pacific Northwest, we found that perspectives could be grouped into Health Care Migrants (30.8%), Community Supporters (28.2%), and Climate-Concerned Migrants (25.6%). The latter group, for example, were all born in the RMI, and identified with concerns about climate change as a future driver of migration (not a present one) that might also affect their decision to return to the RMI. In considering the ongoingness of the Marshallese relationship with home, the aspects of homogeneity and diversity in their responses can alert us to both the localized and trans-locational nature of the migration experience, and diversify and challenge notions that a move to the United States solves most of the critical issue that exist in the RMI.

We then discuss the law and review some of the many ways (and locations) in which Marshallese migrants are legally misidentified, misrepresented, and underserved in the United States. We also, however, place emphasis on their legal awareness, collaborations, and advancements in this arena. In the former case, we point to two interviews (one in Arkansas and one in Hawai'i) in which individuals shared that websites to apply for unemployment benefits during the pandemic contained no way to accurately enter their citizenship/migration status. We also highlight how Marshallese and other COFA citizens (those from the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau) advance their legal presence through groups that work for legislative engagement across the mainland, such as the COFA Alliance National Network (CANN). Individuals and communities also engage in frequent meetings to advocate for various rights, services, and policies, as well as to increase the likelihood that they are well implemented (such as encouraging inclusive language policies to assist in navigating the newly granted access to Medicaid). As Marshallese migrants continue to live in the United States, and generations are born here, there is an even greater need to understand their relationship with U.S. laws and policies that impact their access to services and well-being.

Finally, we explore the concepts of responsibility and repair as they relate to well-being. We tell the story of a museum exhibit in Chicago, Home is Where the Jaki Is, co-curated with Marshallese students from Oklahoma. The exhibit text refers to the passage of COFA as a time in which Marshallese people were offered “reparations” and became able to live and work in the United States—a not uncommon perspective. We juxtapose this story with interviews in which participants explain that they do not find COFA substantially reparative, if at all, and instead spoke of its various inadequacies. One reason is its lack of engagement with substantive, ongoing environmental issues beyond limited nuclear impacts in the so-called “fallout” area. Another is that a migration provision is neither uniquely granted to the Marshallese, nor a form of repair—it is simply offered to gain strategic interest in the Pacific. The consideration of what responsibility is, and how repair might be enacted, we argue, are crucial aspects of connecting past to present, and present to future, enlarging the scope of how to consider well-being for the Marshallese. Such considerations also help us complexify the notion of the need for repair from a single, historic event (nuclear testing), providing a better idea of what Marshallese migrants need to flourish amidst the ongoing backdrop of the U.S. militarization of the Pacific and the uncertainty of COFA re-negotiations.

The author would like to thank the Marshall Islands Climate and Migration Project (MICMP) team, who are responsible for the fieldwork and findings she reports on in the first part of the paper, as well as the project’s partners and funders. For a full list of acknowledgements of the knowledge, wisdom, and personal and financial capacity contributed by the Marshallese, the research team, funders, and others, please see pages 6-7 of our full research report , and the acknowledgements in our paper “The Ongoingness of Migration: Marshallese Well-Being in the United States.”