Today there are over 30,000 FSM citizens and 20,000 Marshallese living in the United States and its territories. Add to that possibly another 10,000 Palauans, and you have a total of 60,000 Micronesians living away from home. These are not students, young people away for a short time, or islanders who are doing a brief stint with the military. These are people-young and old, fluent English-speakers and those who know no more than a few words of the language-who have chosen to take up residence abroad.
Emigration is not an entirely new phenomenon. Palauans have been leaving home since the late 1940s. Already in 1953, there were a hundred Palauans on Guam with their own Palau Association. As their numbers grew in subsequent years, they would meet in a Palauan bai and worship in a local language Protestant church. From the early 1970s, as hundreds of Micronesian students began heading for college in the US, thanks to the extension of the Pell Grant, emigration from Palau stepped up to about 250 a year. These were not young men and women on their way to college for a few years before returning home; they were people with a one-way ticket out. By the late 1970s, individuals from other parts of Micronesia as well were dribbling into Guam and the US with the intention of staying. The 1980 US Census recorded several hundred people from what was then coming to be known as FSM, most of them Outer Island Yapese, living in the US. These mostly educated, young people were loathe to return to their atolls where there was no wage employment, but reluctant to settle in Yap where they lacked status and land.
Then, in 1986 with the formal implementation of the Compact of Free Association in FSM and the Republic of the Marshalls, Micronesians were granted the right to live and work in the US for an unlimited period. The ensuing emigration was limited at first: the emigration from FSM was only about one percent a year, half of what it is today, and the early migrants were heavily Chuukese. The main destinations in those early years were Guam and Saipan. As both places suffered from a recession in the early 1990s and new jobs became scarce, more and more Micronesians headed for Hawaii. The migrant outflow increased sharply in the mid-1990s as the effects of the stepdown in Compact funding for FSM and RMI were felt and as the government reforms, initiated by Asian Development Bank, lopped jobs from the public sector.
Today we are witnessing an emigration comparable to those that other Pacific islands—Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Guam—have been experiencing for years. A decade or two ago, writers took delight in pointing out that the emigration population of, say, Samoans in California was half the size of its resident population, or that the Guamanians on the West Coast outnumbered those on their home island. Now Micronesia is rapidly moving in the same direction. With 2,000 FSM citizens, 1,000 Marshallese, and a couple hundred Palauans leaving home each year to live abroad, one out of every four Micronesians is now living in the US or its territories. If migration continues at this same pace, we can expect that the number of emigrants will be about half the size of the resident population just ten years from now.
17 August 2007
Micronesian Emigration Rising
The Micronesian Seminar regularly publishes articles on issues facing Micronesians under a series called Micronesian Counselor. The latest in the series is on HIV/AIDS in Micronesia. In December 2006 MicSem published an article on Micronesians Abroad by Francis X. Hezel, S.J., and Eugenia Samuel. Here's just the introduction.