Thursday, September 20, 2007

Legal Aid for All Micronesians

The numbers of those leaving the CNMI due to the economic downfall is growing. Their absence is palpable. Many are leaving their family, making the hard decision to sacrifice pride of home and culture. This reluctant portion of the exodus is headed primarily to the US, in search of better days.

I can imagine the same for those leaving Palau, Chuuk, Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, Phonpei or Yap. I do not know how they are faring overseas, but at least I know that they will not be denied legal aid for merely being Micronesian. If they are in financial straits and are facing legal problems, they may be able to obtain the services of an attorney for free, whether it be for debt relief, child support, consumer protection, fair housing, prevention of domestic violence or a host of other civil matters.

But this only happened last week.

On September 14, 2007, a decade-long restriction on free civil legal services to indigent Micronesians residing in the US was lifted. Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a quasi-federal agency serving as the main source of funding for nonprofit legal aid organizations, amended its regulations on alien representation for citizens from the Freely Associated States (FAS) of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. Before the change, FAS citizens could only be eligible for legal aid in the West Pacific (through Micronesian Legal Services). In the US, however, FAS citizens were deemed ineligible aliens unless they fell under one of the general exempt categories of documented aliens. This barrier to legal aid cannot be simply written off as the fallout of the relationship between the US and the former Trust Territories. A brief political history is in order.

In the 1960s, legal aid programs began flourishing in the US through funding by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the agency administering the social agenda of Pres. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Micronesian Legal Services began in 1971 through the efforts of individuals such as former CNMI Senator Herman R. Guerrero and Marshall Islands Senator Tony de Brum with the assistance of the OEO.

As with many Great Society programs, legal aid has always had its share of detractors. In 1983, the US Congress barred representation of aliens as a condition for LSC funding. This was done in the midst of the Reagan administration’s push to curtail if not abolish legal aid. Certain types of documented aliens were not subject to the restriction, such as permanent residents, refugees and political asylees. Also exempt from the restriction were citizens of the US Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands (what is now the FAS and the CNMI). The exemption carried on after the termination of Trust Territory status in 1986, insofar as the Compact of Free Association Act governing the relationship between the US and the FAS extended LSC-funded services to all FAS citizens.

Legal aid to FAS citizens in the US ended in 1996. Along with a massive budget cut, wide-ranging restrictions were imposed on LSC under the Republican-controlled Congress during Pres. Clinton’s administration. One of the changes involved a reinterpretation of the Compact of Free Association. Legal aid could only be available to FAS citizens within the confines of their home countries. Micronesians abroad were demoted.

The impact was deeply felt. At the time the Compact was signed, there were most likely less than 10,000 Micronesians in the US, mostly in Hawaii and Guam. Today, there are over 40,000 FAS citizens residing in the US, with over 15,000 living in Hawaii and up to 10,000 Marshallese living in Northeast Arkansas alone. Legal aid organizations in those states, along with organizations representing Micronesians and others within the legal community, pushed for a removal of the legal aid embargo. US Senate legislation was passed in September 2006 clarifying that the bar on alien representation was not intended to apply to FAS citizens. David Cohen, head of the Office of Insular Affairs, US Dept. of the Interior, verified that the Compact and federal law and policy allow FAS citizens in the US to receive LSC-funded legal aid.

Without a sense of history, what was done last week might be seen as a mere correction. For those who supported the change, they see it as the strengthening of the rule of law by ensuring equal access to justice.

These are heady times in the CNMI. A sea change is in the works, given the imminent federal overhaul of local immigration law, the casino industry initiative in Saipan, and the local labor reform bill. Many cannot remain steadfast as the tourist and garment industries collapse; they are leaving for the States. For those choosing to remain here, perhaps what happened last week will help them bear in mind that the looming sea change in the CNMI should not compromise the ability of anyone, wherever they live, from being able to exercise their rights.

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