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A third of the Marshall Islands’ population has moved to the U.S., leaving a country reeling from high unemployment and the looming effects of climate change. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Mike Taibbi reports. This story is part of an ongoing series called "Chasing the Dream," on poverty and opportunity in America, and was funded in part by Pacific Islanders in Communications.
There's a growing population of migrants in this country coming not across the southern border, but from island nations in the equatorial Pacific. They are fleeing deepening poverty and the destructive effects of climate change, and they enjoy a status in America unlike that of any other immigrant group. Special Correspondent Mike Taibbi reports from the Marshall Islands and Salem, Oregon.
This report is part of our ongoing series "Chasing the Dream," and was funded in part by Pacific Islanders in Communication.
In snapshots, the Marshall Islands look like paradise, a Pacific archipelago of coral atolls midway between Hawaii and Australia.
But what pictures don't tell you is that a third of the island's population has left for the United States. And why leave their island home? The president of the Marshall Islands, Dr. Hilda Heine, explains.
There have been people who leave for education, for health purposes, for jobs, and I'm sure there are people who are leaving because of the threats of climate change.
Climate change is a big issue here, much in the news recently as punishing king tides combined with persistent drought have wreaked havoc on dwindling fresh water supplies. The view among climate experts, and many here who keep rebuilding their sea walls against the warming, rising Pacific, is that the islands are sinking, if not disappearing.
So, of course, people are looking for better things, and they think that anything in the United States is better than what we have here. We're competing with the strongest country in the world.
There's another reason they're moving to the United States — where the Marshallese community currently numbers around 30,000. Citizens of the Marshall Islands can live and work in the U.S. without visas and work permits. That's because of a 1986 law called the Compact of Free Association, or COFA.
COFA established U.S. economic aid and special rights for a trio of equatorial Pacific island nations used by the U.S. military, including for the scores of nuclear tests in the 1940s and 50s that rendered some of the Marshall Islands, like Bikini Atoll, uninhabitable.
Today, with good jobs in short supply in the Marshall Islands — unemployment is hovering around 40% — leaving for America makes sense for many. American Jerry Kramer's company, Pacific International, has been here for half a century and is the country's biggest private employer. He says that so many people have moved away that it's a struggle to hire and hold onto skilled local workers.
You employ hundreds, how many have you lost to migration to the states?
I'm afraid to guess.
Over the years, hundreds?
Oh, yeah, definitely.
Recent years, many more?
Without a doubt. Most of our Marshallese are either very young, or very old. The more productive ages, between 25, 45, there's a smaller percentage, because those people go.
Isaac Marty told us his $4 an hour newspaper job barely paid for food, making leaving the Islands the only option to make sense.
I love the Islands. This is where I was born and grew up. And I don't want to leave the Islands, but then I have no other choice but to try to make some living for my family.
But moving from here is expensive. So his wife, Amelia, and two of their kids were the first to leave, in April of last year, for Salem, Oregon, while Isaac and his son Isaiah stayed behind, bunking with relatives.
There are nightly calls to Amelia in Salem, not knowing if it will be months or years before they'll all be reunited. In the meantime, at Isaiah's school, 80 kids didn't show up on opening day because they and their families had left. And many of his remaining classmates can't afford school supplies. Poverty has a huge impact on education throughout the islands.
Also limited, medical care here: no kidney dialysis, no cancer care. Even basic care is in short supply. Isaac Marty found himself frustrated, whether it was one of the kids needing treatment for an ailment — or his wife, Amelia, battling chronic depression.
We don't get the quality service that we want. We get sent away with pills and other medication that does not help most of the time. So that's, to me, that's awful.
Finally, five months after Amelia and the other kids had left, Isaac and Isaiah were able to join the rest of the family in Salem, after relatives already in the states helped pay for their airfare.
When the Marshallese come here, to Oregon, to the state of Washington, Arkansas, places where their numbers have increased exponentially in recent years, they are not citizens, they are not illegal or undocumented immigrants, they're not refugees shielded by temporary protective status. They're what many are now calling "permanent non-immigrants."
Among them, Jesse Gasper, one of the first to arrive, three decades ago, who came here under COFA years after his grandparents and great grandparents had been relocated from Bikini Atoll due to the nuclear testing of the early 50s. Gasper spent his childhood in Arkansas, which has the largest population of Marshallese living in the U.S.
In elementary school, I cried a lot. I cried a lot when I was going home because I was different.
Were you ever confronted with outright racism or discriminatory—
All the time. I learned to I guess be a politician. I tried to be pleasing to everybody.
Gasper and his family eventually settled in Salem, where he works as an insurance agent. He's also the president of an advocacy group called the Oregon Marshallese Community.
When somebody comes here from the islands, they expect to have this Hollywood-type lifestyle. When they do come here, they are faced with rent, they're faced with a job that doesn't sufficiently pay for all the bills that they have.
He spreads the word about resources available to the community at the churches where hundreds of Marshallese flock on Sundays.
These are the reasons we've migrated here…
And he meets with city officials like Mayor Chuck Bennett. Gasper talks about the challenges facing his fellow islanders. Since they're not citizens, they can't vote, and in Oregon, have only recently gained access to benefits full citizens enjoy, including health care options, and jobs in fields like law enforcement. And they are still seeking access in other areas, like food stamps and in-state college tuition discounts.
But this genial city of 170,000 has made adjustments for the swelling population of Marshallese and other Pacific Islanders.
Numbers are growing. Currently, there's over 1,600 Pacific islanders in our school district, which is a pretty big number. I make sure that they're getting what they need and their voices are heard.
With so many Pacific Islanders in its school district, Salem employs Kenny Ramirez as a resource specialist now working exclusively with that community.
They're coming to school a little tired because they couldn't even start their homework until after the youngest siblings were in bed. Our absentee rate for our Pacific Islanders is high. Our graduation rate is not the greatest right now. So that's one of our major focuses. I need to listen to them and find out what the underlying reason is why they're not at school first, because there's usually a bigger reason to why they're not at school, it could be transportation, it could be home situation.
It's a 24/7 job, building relationships with parents through home visits.
KENNY RAMIREZ (speaking to parent):
I've already spoke with the teachers, and they said that he's doing his best…
And connecting with kids one on one, either in school, where he tracks their attendance and grades…
KENNY RAMIREZ (speaking to student):
You know your grades are great. We have one class of concern.
…or in the Pacific Islander club, whose meetings, a junior named Rose Mae told us, are always packed. The aim here is to create a sense of community and to preserve a Pacific island culture that goes back thousands of years.
Rose Mae, how important is it to have a club like this?
To me, it's really important. It's like my own little island, in this classroom.
During our visit, the kids talked about the difficulty of trying to embrace an American-styled adolescence.
Did you find it a struggle to just show up at school?
I wasn't used to here. It was confusing at first. Middle school year I never came to school because I was just too scared.
Some in this club are determined to someday visit…
I haven't been to Marshall Islands or anything….
… if not move to – the Marshall Islands. Will the islands be there, as a place to live? If you ask President Hilda Heine, and we did, she'll insist the Marshall Islands are not done yet.
I hope that people will see that the Marshall Islands as a country and as a people continue to live and continue to exist. That we didn't abdicate and just say 'forget it' and leave.
There are efforts here to create more opportunities in the islands, but they have limitations.
This processing and packing plant serves the world's biggest tuna fishery, that produces millions in licensing fees yearly for foreign boats. But there's still no full service harbor here that would allow the Marshallese to support their own fleet of tuna boats, and to catch the fish themselves.
This aquaculture fish farm operation, produces more than a ton of the fish delicacy called moi each week. But it isn't profitable yet, and currently employs fewer than 50 islanders.
And this workshop trains youth in carpentry — crafting the sailing canoes that for a millennium have explored these islands. But those lovely canoes aren't a business so much as an act of devotion.
As for Isaac Marty, he and his son, Isaiah, have been living in Salem, Oregon, for more than a year now, this reunited family striving to be self-sufficient in a new city. They spend afternoons at a sun-splashed nearby park. They have a decent used car, a new apartment, and just enough money for food and a few toys for the kids.
You're doing a great job.
Isaac himself has landed his best job yet: $17 bucks an hour as a much-in-demand translator for the school district.
ISAAC MARTY (talking to his boss):
Yeah, I've got about five more syllabus to work on.
And his kids are thriving in school.
The workload that they give to elementary school students here are like the workload that they give to middle schools back home. I feel that they're getting smarter than me.
So she's 8 pounds, 7 ounces.
And there's a new baby in this family, Petunia. She gets regular neonatal checkups through Oregon's health plan — and the doctor also checks in with mom, Amelia, to make sure that her anxiety and depression are under control.
Your mood is okay? Not getting too sad, or worried?
A little bit. Well, we get a little bit up to near boiling point, and then just calm down a bit.
Isaac tries not to second-guess the decision he made to leave the Marshall Islands.
It's like two things pulling you in different directions. I've got the islands, and then my family. So I had to let one go so that I can have the other one.
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Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
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