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Helping Milan’s Micronesian community navigate difficult waters

MILAN, Minn. -- Milan's Micronesian community in west-central Minnesota  is reaching a tipping point in its American experience, right at a challenging time. It sweeps this tiny community into the national debate over immigration reform and into the prickly politics of U.S.-China relations in the Pacific.

The tipping point is clear. "A majority of people are beginning to feel more American than Micronesian,'' said Patrick Roisen.  

He is working with the community on immigration and integration issues in his roles with the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, Southwest Minnesota Sustainable Development Partnership and University of Minnesota.

Some of the Micronesian families have made Milan their home for as long as 16 years and for most, their children have spent all of their lives in the U.S.

Now, some of the families are looking at their options to become citizens. The pathways are limited, if they exist at all.

"They really are just in limbo,'' said Bob Ryan of Bird Island, who is responsible for recruiting Roisen's assistance. Ryan has been working with Milan's Micronesian community to help it identify economic opportunities. With a population of just over 200, the Micronesian community represents over one-half of the small town's overall population.

All of the Micronesian residents in Milan come from an island about the size of Milan in the Micronesian state of Chuuk. It’s where Milan native and Sun Prairie Bank owner Erik Thompsen had served in the Peace Corps.  

The Micronesians who have made Milan their home made the move for two reasons: Jobs and the opportunity for their children to receive a good education.

A compact between the U.S. and the Federated States of Micronesia allows them to live and work in the U.S., but it does not confer the rights of citizenship. Nor does it provide a pathway to citizenship, something that is otherwise available to many immigrants who are refugees of political strife and economic turmoil, Roisen explained.

He has developed a document that is being distributed to Micronesian residents. It informs them about the legal issues surrounding their status. It is aimed at helping them explore what pathways to citizenship might exist.

Roisen and Ryan also brought the dilemma the community faces to the attention of Minnesota’s U.S. Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar.

Ryan said the Micronesian community in Milan is small and lacks the resources to take on political and legal challenges. And, he pointed out, it is not a part of their culture to call attention to themselves or complain about their plight.

Children of Micronesians who are born in the U.S. can become citizens if they choose do so when they reach adulthood. Some are now at that point, Ryan said.

The community is also seeing its first children reach the age to attend college. Lacking citizenship, they are not eligible for federal student loans. That’s a definitive obstacle for many, he said.

Micronesia does not allow its citizens to hold dual citizenship. The young people will have to decide between the two countries.

Most are likely to become U.S. citizens, Ryan said.

He cannot imagine many of the children or adults voluntarily returning to Micronesia. There is no economic opportunity for them there. And for most of the adults, their children represent their social security system when they become too old to work.

Adults lacking citizenship also face uncertainty. The compact between the U.S. and Micronesia expires in 2023. The state of Chuuk has recently expressed interest in seceding from the Federated States of Micronesia. The state of Chuuk is interested in taking advantage of economic overtures being offered by China, Ryan explained.

If Chuuk were to secede, would that negate the compact under which the Micronesians now live in the U.S.? Roisen and Ryan said that is among the questions remaining to be answered.

Their hope is the document Roisen has put together for the community will help the people gain some voice in shaping their futures. The Micronesian residents in Milan are among an estimated 15,000 Micronesians living in a variety of locations in the U.S. Many are found in Hawaii and Guam and along the west coast, but there are also small, Micronesian communities in some of the Midwestern states.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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