The FSM Consul General in Hawaii: Kandhi A. Elieisar

We were fortunate and grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with the FSM's Consul General, Mr. Kandhi Elieisar. We discussed several topics currently affecting FSM citizens living in Hawaii; topics relating to homelessness, health-care, migration, Chuuk's independence and others.

Some background from the interviewee:

"My name is Kandhi A. Elieisar, from Namoluk and Kuttu Islands in Chuuk State, and a citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia by birth. After graduating from Xavier High School, I went to various colleges and universities in Kansas City and California, where I eventually graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a BA in Sociology. Went to graduate school in public administration at California State University, San Bernardino."

"Worked at the FSM Supreme Court as an Administrative Officer for six years, recruited into Foreign Service where I worked for 24 years in the then External Affairs Department as Foreign Service Officer III, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Information and Research, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Pacific Affairs before heading one of the two main divisions in our now Foreign Affairs Department as Assistant Secretary for Pacific, Asia, Africa and Multilateral Affairs. Posted to Hawaii as Consul General since January 9, 2013 and currently assuming that post."

TFB = The Fourth Branch
KE = Consul General, Kandhi Elieisar

TFB: What is the job of a Consul General?

KE: Generally, the principal role of a Consul General, as the highest ranking consular official, is to oversee and manage the full range of functions of the Consulate General as spelled out in Article 5 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR) including carrying out instructions from home government on policy, political and ceremonial representations.

TFB: What is the function of a consulate? What services does it provide for citizens?

KE: Article 5 of the VCCR detailed these functions, but the general consular functions entail promoting and protecting the interests of the Nation and its citizens in the cultural, economic, social and political spheres; assisting in securing citizens documentations and acting as notary public, helping and safeguarding the interests and rights of citizens who are subjects of law enforcement, jail and judicial authorities, extending assistance to foreign visitors, vessels and aircrafts, and performing any other functions instructed from home government within limits of international and local laws. Accordingly, the services undertaken by theConsulate General are as follows: makes representations with federal, state and localleaders including in formal ceremonial events, attends outreach programs sponsored by partner organizations, churches and government agencies; conductsoutreach programs to citizens throughout the Aloha State aimed at making them aware of the functions of the Consulate General, updating them on developments in home government and exchanging or listening to their concerns and views; provides assistance to citizens in applying for social security benefits, renewing passports, notarizing documents, drafting powers of attorney, securing birth certificates, disseminating information, fetching electronic I-94s; assists in facilitating elections and advises citizens of important events and developments in their host communities including non-citizens on visitation and commercial matters; and assists citizens in getting health, interpretation and medical assistance including those in jail, detention and correctional facilities.

TFB: The office has regular park cleanups during the weekends, what is the message for these cleanups?

KE: The Consulate General fully supports citizens’ participation in voluntary charitable, humanitarian and civil activities such as the cleaning of parks, cemeteries, highways, streets and recreational areas. After all, citizens are the main beneficiaries of these public spaces. And we continue to encourage cleaning sponsorship of these public areas that have been adopted by citizens. Besides these, the Consulate General adopts the Magic Island for cleanup on a quarterly basis or every three months, with the latest one being done on August 8, 2015 normally on the last Saturday of the third quarterly month. It is our aim that through these voluntary works on behalf citizens, we hope to demonstrate token appreciation and gratitude to host communities for welcoming citizens into their homeland and sharing these facilities with us. We also hope to promote a positive constructive image of ourselves as responsible, caring and civil people given the preponderance of negative stereotypes and discrimination against Micronesians.

TFB: Hawaii has been for many years a popular destination for Micronesians, mostly FSM citizens, to move to. Many come here to work, study, and for health issues, and other opportuniites. Is there still a rise in FSM citizens coming to Hawaii? How many citizens live here now?

KE: Absent a reliable and accurate tally of out-migration of citizens into the United States, what we gathered from a few surveys conducted on citizens particularly residing in the State of Hawaii is that we have about fifteen (15) thousand FSM citizens only living in the Hawaiian Islands, a significant increase from about nine (9) thousand found in the Levin-Hezel Survey of 2010. There is indeed a steady upward trajectory of migration for citizens visiting relatives, seeking medical treatment, finding jobs, attending schools and joining the U.S. Armed Forces.

TFB: Healthcare has been an ongoing concern for our citizens. What is the status of affordable healthcare for our citizens?

KE: Health-care and its affordability has been a perennial concern for Micronesians, particularly for those who cannot afford medical treatment for lack of a health insurance and/or income. A roller-coaster journey defines a predicament of health care eligibility and access for Micronesians, whose genesis can be found in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act passed by the US Congress. Since then, citizens have been subjected to the benevolence of the State of Hawaii in affording them health care insurance, which it did so generously in the initial stage subsequent to the passage of the Act through Medicaid eligibility. It was the State’s economic downturn during the Lingle Administration that citizens were relegated to the Basic Health Hawaii (BHH), which was insufficient to cover more expensive drugs, necessary doctor visitations and sophisticated clinical procedures. Winning a trial court decision restored their Medicaid eligibility but was later purged when the US Supreme Court upheld the appellate court decision granting full legal authority to the State to decide eligibility. This was followed by the introduction of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, where most citizens were taken off from Medicaid except the ABDs and making health care insurance plan a commodity to be purchased on the market through the Hawaii Health Connector. Given that many Micronesians are in the lower echelon of the economic ladder, many are unable to pay the required premiums and co-pays to assure continued eligibility for health insurance, albeit perceived as low out-of-pocket expenses. Exacerbating the situation is the lack of understanding of the benefits and plans of the health insurance providers, the confusion and inconvenience of enrolling with limited enrollment periods, fewer kokuas or helpers and insufficient or incomprehensible notices. The indebtedness of HHC and its eventual bankruptcy necessitated assumption of the entire system through a federally-run health insurance whose enrollment period begins in November 1, 2015. Meanwhile, Micronesians struggle to make ends meet, with stories of deteriorating illnesses or perhaps even death for some due to inability to pay for those who have health care insurance and those who have no insurance at all for one reason or another. Many will have to wait to re-enroll in the new system, which we hope is affordable.

TFB: . What illnesses are FSM citizens coming here to find treatment for?

KE: The most common ailments that citizens have are non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. NCDs are in epidemic proportion in the entire Pacific island region, and citizens’ migration overseas stem from lack of qualified medical practitioners and appropriate medical treatment technology at home.

TFB: In 2010, Basic Health Hawaii (BHH) was implemented. A State run health-care program created specifically for COFA migrants that did not cover many important treatments such as chemotherapy and dialysis. How did this affect our sick citizens? Did any COFA citizen die as a result of the implementation of BHH?

KE: I have learned anecdotes of citizens receiving minimal care or foregoing medical treatment due to insufficient benefits afforded to them under the BHH. While statistics would be needed here, it is conceivable to believe that citizens’ health can only be deteriorating, especially for those with chronic illnesses, if the number of doctor visitation is reduced, access to expensive clinical procedure is curtailed, and purchase of needed drugs is limited. Deaths are also possible.

TFB: Homelessness: Homeless COFA citizens have been on the news lately. The homeless issue in Hawaii has gained national attention. And local news have indicated that COFA citizens are large contributors to this crisis. Would you like to respond?

KE: Homelessness is a perennial issue here in Hawaii even beyond, an unfortunate fact of life. Absent substantiating statistics on the demographics of the homeless population in Hawaii, it is not surprising that fingers are pointed to the most vulnerable and voiceless racial group as comprising the bulk of the homeless population. The recent survey done by PHOCUS in conjunction with Kalihi Palama Health Center shows that FSM citizens have been scapegoated all along to make up the largest segment of the homeless population when they in fact are fewer than Caucasians and Native Hawaiians. I have been unable to fetch a copy of the survey which focused on the Kaka’ako homelessness despite repeated requests. It is possible to believe that among the FSM homeless citizens, Chuukese make up most of the homeless citizens. Perhaps this could be explained by the fact that over 50% of the FSM population here in Hawaii are Chuukese.

TFB: Are there local efforts by our COFA citizens to remedy this issue?

KE: I am pleased to observe that Micronesians have not totally abandoned their cultural values and practices of helping each other across extended familial and kinship lines. They would risk privacy and living in overcrowded rental units simply to accommodate their disadvantaged relatives or even friends, who are either homeless or on the verge of homelessness. Indeed, if these cultural values are not practiced, we would see more homeless or houseless Micronesians on the street. The role of Church in our society is integral and paramount. Many citizens are people of strong faith, and they continue to practice their faith in their new homes by reaching out to each other for support and sustenance. There are church associations who have made it a demonstration of their faith and love to assist the homeless by visiting them, praying with them and providing food and other donated items. The Consulate General is cognizant of the homeless situation to the extent that some of our citizens are involved. We have been involved in meetings and some outreaches on homelessness including talking with state and local leaders to understand their efforts in tackling homelessness. We also continue to monitor the efforts of the local governments in enforcing the Sit-and-Lie and Stored Property Ordinances. In outreach events, we stress values of hard work, being self-sufficient and not too dependent, being productive and law abiding. We also impress upon citizens keeping and practicing our cultural values and beliefs in caring and assisting each other.

TFB: Are there measures being taken by our government at home (FSM) to help alleviate the homeless problem?

KE: We continue to sensitize our own leaders during their occasional visits to Hawaii on the homeless situation facing some of our citizens so that they are aware of it and explore possible short-term and long-term solutions from the home front and in overseas communities where homelessness and, indeed, other related problems abound. While I am not aware of specific measures being taken by our government, the leadership is increasingly aware of this challenge and is providing financial assistance to the newly piloted Migrant Resource Center established to train and prepare citizens who contemplate migrating overseas.

TFB: Is there a program that citizens in the FSM have to take before they travel to the USA? Maybe a list or factoid that we can take to prepare us for living or moving abroad?

KE: The Migrant Resource Center is such program funded by the International Organization for Migration with USAID, with two offices already realized in Pohnpei and in Chuuk States. The aim is basically to prepare migrating citizens on, inter alia, what can be expected of them when residing abroad in terms of the kinds of agencies to deal with when securing documentations that are vital for residency or when needing help, the laws that citizens must heed and what is accepted behavior and not accepted behavior, and to be mindful of issues such as human and drug trafficking.

TFB: In the amended compact it states that, "any alien who has been admitted under the Compact, or the Compact, as amended, who cannot show that he or she has sufficient means of support in the United States, is deportable" (Section 141(f)(1)). Does this essentially give States or countries the ability to deport unproductive (i.e. Homeless) COFA citizens? If so, should this option be used?

KE: Perhaps this may require some legal understanding and interpretation of Section 141 (f)(1) to be able to answer the deportability of a citizen who does not demonstrate “sufficient means” of support. This is a nebulous phraseology. What does “sufficient means of support” mean, and how is it interpreted or decided whether a citizen has sufficient means of support or not? And how does one enforce this provision? I personally have not heard of a deportation action taken against a COFA citizen by any parties to the Compact or a local government like here in Hawaii, perhaps because of the dubious nature of this provision and its enforceability. For the homeless, it is quite obvious that they are not living a sustainable lifestyle and can be deported as per the Compact provision. But deporting a homeless person risks getting into other issues about his rights, privileges and dignity as a human being, and making homelessness an illegal act. Deporting a homeless person also implies that the local entity must assume the full deportation costs, which is something no government is well disposed to do. So, while this provision sanctions deportation and can perhaps be utilized by state, country or local governments, it can be problematic if not done right.

TFB: It would appear that many of the homeless COFA migrants are coming from one State, Chuuk. Are there statistics to support or disprove this? Is there a reason that many Chuukese citizens are becoming homeless?

KE: I cannot corroborate the claim that many of the homeless COFA migrants are Chuukese due to lack of reliable statistics. Marshallese are also COFA citizens, and they also are part of the homeless population with no identifiable number. As I mentioned earlier, there are more Chuukese here in Hawaii and possibly in the mainland than any other COFA ethnic groups which may explain their claimed disproportionate number in homelessness and their migration to overseas destinations in the first place. Chuuk State appears to be experiencing greater socio-economic difficulties compared with the other states in the federation. Having over half of the FSM population coupled with being one of the smallest in landmass can be some of the defining factors affecting life in Chuuk. The health and education systems are not functioning well and employment opportunities are very limited, with the lowest minimum wage for those employed. Without proper upbringing at home, they are prone to face greater difficulties in adjusting to their new overseas homes and assimilating well into the mainstream life abroad. Their larger number with limited skills and knowledge could perhaps explain propensities for homelessness and other problems.

TFB: On the subject of Chuuk. A bill was recently introduced that would tax Chuukese citizens living abroad. What affects do you think this bill will have on citizens living here?

KE: I am aware of the proposed bill introduced in the Chuuk Legislature and pending legislative sanctioning. No one has taken time to canvass the views or reactions of Chuukese, particularly those residing abroad. But, I am getting negative vibrations from some Chuukese citizens here in Honolulu who castigated such bill as a desperate attempt by the Chuuk leadership to shore up the revenue streams of the State given dire economic and financial conditions, competing priorities of the State including the political movement for an independent Chuuk and a measure to stem outmigration or even reverse migration. As to the possible effects of such a tax on Chuukese residing abroad, that remains to be seen. Given the high cost of living for those residing in Hawaii, the imposition of such a tax may not sit well for many. It would make sense for those advocating such bill to visit Chuukese overseas and engage them on the merits or demerits of the bill and to learn their views and concerns.

TFB: Another Chuuk related discussion is the independence movement for Chuuk State. Do you support this movement? Will this be a negative or positive effect for FSM citizens living abroad?

KE: My views are no different from those who swore under oath as political appointees to uphold the FSM Constitution, which speaks to the imperative of a united country comprised of four constituent states and comprised of people of many cultural and linguistic background distanced by vast bodies of water. I remain opposed to such movement as long as I am an appointed national public servant. There is no doubt that the political movement will affect the lives of Chuukese in particular living abroad, who face the risk of being stripped of their privileges and rights under the present Compact of Free Association including federally-funded programs provided to them per the bilateral treaty.

TFB: Currently many citizens are migrating out of the FSM for better opportunities. But it would appear that climate change will force even more of us to migrate. How are we preparing for the potential mass migration of our citizens?

KE: Climate change is the number one existential threat to FSM and its citizens; hence, the FSM has been a strong advocate of greenhouse gas emission reduction by the major emitters or polluters while taking action on its own to reduce consumption of polluting substances such as HFCs and HCFCs, among others. At the same time, we are actively requesting the international community to provide funding for mitigation and adaptation measures to be implemented locally to save our fragile resources. While being environmental refugees is an option, nobody wants to leave his/her homeland. We would rather fight for controlling emissions and pollution so that the consequent climate-change and sea-level rise don’t take place and displace us from our homes. Hence, there is not much preparation for mass migration of citizens due to climate change.

TFB: Also in the near future is the scheduled end of Compact 2 funding. This may also lead to a potential mass migration of citizens. How are we preparing for this?

KE: The outmigration of citizens is an expected part of the bilateral treaty given the privileges and rights afforded as part of the quid-pro-quo package inherent in the bilateral treaty between the FSM and the USA. The upward trend of migration is increasingly attracting the attention of the leadership primarily because of the multifaceted challenges facing citizens abroad, which have caused serious concerns from host communities. Hence, we are seeing some effort to at least prepare migrating citizens by informing them of what can be expected in their overseas destinations through the pilot establishment of the Migrant Resource Centers in Pohnpei and Chuuk States. If further success is gauged, we hope to include all the remaining states in the federation. In addition, the government has already established a Post-2023 Task Force to look into the socio-economic-politico scenario and to devise options for the Nation. As part of the economic reform efforts undertaken including long-term fiscal framework being devised at the state level, the federal and state governments are working on reforming tax collection efforts.

TFB: The organizations and individuals fighting for health equity for COFA citizens have been largely normal citizens as well as US lawyers and policy makers. It is the same for the homeless issue. Why have our elected and appointed officials been, for the most part, absent?

KE: We remain grateful and pleased that citizens are actively working with partners and friends throughout this Aloha State for health justice and social fairness and equity. It is understandable to say that our elected officials and leaders are absent in providing assistance to our citizens in these important areas, because they are not too visible enough. However, some of our government officials and leaders are discussing the issue of homelessness in their meetings with state and local authorities. In fact, I have accompanied a few of our leaders in meeting with relevant state and local leaders where a range of issues affecting COFA citizens were discussed. At the federal level, our Ambassador to the USA has been working the US Congress and the federal bureaucracy in lobbying reinstatement of Medicaid eligibility and other related issues, with assistance and support from his colleague ambassadors from the COFA Nations. We just improve our information sharing so that citizens are aware of the efforts of our leaders and this Consulate General.

TFB: The group here at TFB would like to thank you for this opportunity. I hope our readers find this interview insightful and of use. Before we close, do you have any final thoughts?

KE: We need to continue our struggle for justice, fairness and equality as a people. We are not alone as we have made friends, partners and supporters for our cause. We have many challenges as newcomers, but these challenges are not insurmountable and will take time to slowly dissipate given widespread discrimination and misunderstanding about us. We are disadvantaged for being new, small, voiceless, less resourceful and made up of separate ethnic groups. Unity among ourselves will take time, but unity we must to face challenges with strength. Aloha will not come easily; we need to earn it just as those before us. I am convinced that unless we step out of our comfort zones and reach across the social and economic barriers that separate us from each other and other racial groups, we will have a long way to bridge the differences and misunderstandings that separate us. Hence, we must endeavor to continue to dialogue and reach across racial lines to promote understanding, peace and friendship. Part of that is to unite ourselves as COFA citizens and work side by side in tackling these challenges as opposed to competing or fighting among each other. We must build bridges not barriers. Once we are able to demolish these barriers of culture, language, etc., then we have a better chance of hastening our full acculturation and integration into mainstream life in our host communities. And like those who came here before us, we will succeed.