Micronesians in Hawaii can't get free legal aid
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Attorneys for the poor are decrying a federal regulation that allows Micronesians in their home countries to get federally funded legal aid but does not extend similar services to those living in Hawai'i.
"We're on an all-out assault to get rid of this law," said Chuck Greenfield, who became executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawai'i four months ago.
"In some public housing projects, we can represent one tenant, but this restriction prevents us from representing his neighbor. It is an intolerable situation."
Legal Aid of Hawai'i officials estimate they are turning away hundreds of Micronesians each year because otherwise, the private, nonprofit group would face losing federal money, which makes up one-third of its operating budget.
Sekap Esah, president of Micronesians United, said the lack of the legal services makes Micronesians a target for scams and other abuses.
"In Micronesia, they get the service free, and Americans, when they come to Micronesia, they get the service free. But when we come here in the U.S., the service is not free. We have to pay private attorneys," Esah said. "It's very, very hard."
Esah, a pastor at Nu'uanu Baptist Church, said he frequently hears from fellow Micronesians who need legal help with matters primarily civil in nature, ranging from disputes with landlords and employers to divorces and child support cases.
Limited English skills and a fear of making waves in a new place exacerbate the problem, he said, and often Micronesians simply do whatever they are being told — even if they are being wronged.
The federal regulation, instituted in 1997, is an interpretation of the Compact of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
Because the compact specifies services available to countries rather than citizens, U.S.-subsidized legal services offered to Micronesians are available only within the boundaries of the countries served, according to the U.S. Legal Services Corp., the agency that monitors federal funding for legal services.
"We agree with Legal Aid of Hawai'i that this is not a logical situation, but we cannot change it," said Barbara Moldauer, spokeswoman for the U.S. Legal Services Corp. "It has to be done by changing the law."
Greenfield disagreed, maintaining that the compact is being misinterpreted and a regulation change is possible. He points out that Micronesians are eligible for other federally funded social services in the United States, which are laid out in the compact.
But in the case of legal services, the status of Micronesians is similar to that of illegal immigrants.
"What's particularly outrageous about this restriction is that Micronesians can freely join the U.S. military, yet they cannot get legal services from us," Greenfield said.
Also, he said, the restriction makes it nearly impossible for cash-hungry nonprofits to help Micronesians on U.S. soil because it applies to federal funds along with private dollars spent by federally funded agencies. The only nonprofits immune from the restriction are those financed entirely with private funds.
Micronesians are scattered across the United States, with the largest pocket — about 22,000 people — in California, according to the 2000 Census. In Hawai'i, there are about 8,400 Micronesians, and about 44 percent of them live in poverty, according to Census data.
Other sources of legal aid are hard-pressed to respond to the need.
NOT MUCH HELP
Kokua Legal Services in Kalihi, which gets no federal funding and has a lone, part-time staff attorney, is one of few agencies trying to fill the gap on O'ahu. For Micronesians on the Neighbor Islands, there are fewer places to turn.
"We're overwhelmed," said Joris Watland, board president of Kokua Legal Services. "It's a population that is probably in greatest need right now."
The small legal aid nonprofit assists as many Micronesians as it can, but has limited funding and a tiny staff.
"I know of Micronesian families in Waimea and Honoka'a and Kona (on the Big Island) and they are totally unprotected," Watland said. "We are only on O'ahu, and we basically focus on Kalihi."
If the federal regulation is changed to allow federally funded legal nonprofits to help Micronesians, Greenfield expects to see a flood of new clients.
But he doesn't anticipate any short-term increase in federal funding because appropriations are based on state poverty estimates — not caseloads.
To deal with the new population, "we'd have to look at re-shifting staff and priorities," Greenfield said. "It's not as if we have staff who aren't fully cased up."
CHANGE ISN'T NEAR
As it is, Legal Aid is forced to turn away one person for every one person it helps.
But at the least, Greenfield added, the potential for representation — whether in the courtroom or with legal advice — would be available to Micronesians.
Greenfield, who worked in Micronesia for nine years with Legal Aid, is partnering with Micronesians United and Kokua Legal Services in an effort to change the rule.
So far, the partnership has seen little progress. Last month, Greenfield spoke to the director of the U.S. Legal Services Corp., who reaffirmed the current interpretation. Currently, he is writing to the U.S. Departments of State and the Interior for help.
SENATE BILL MAY HELP
Meanwhile, a U.S. Senate bill stalled since April would allow federally funded legal services for Micronesians in the United States. Senate Bill 1830, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Akaka, was passed through committee in April and has since been awaiting a vote. But Jon Yoshimura, an Akaka spokesman, said all hope is not yet lost.
"The problem with 1830 is this is just one very small provision in a very large bill," Yoshimura said. "But I don't think we're ready to cash in our chips yet."
The bill also amends other provisions of the compact.
The U.S. Senate will go into recess next month, but Yoshimura said the measure could see some action later this year. The bill was introduced in late 2005.
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.