Last October, Kalihi resident Steve Palsis buried his 28-year-old wife.
She caught COVID-19 in late September and died within days. The suddenness of his death was compounded by his own illness and the high cost of his funeral: approximately $ 13,000.
A new federal program aims to help people who have lost their loved ones to the coronavirus recover the cost of their burials. But Palsis, who has lived and worked in Hawaii for decades, is not eligible.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency this month rolled out a new COVID-19 funeral assistance program open to U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals – such as those born in American Samoa – and skilled immigrants.
Democrats in Congress have touted the program as helping low-income communities of color that have been disproportionately killed by the pandemic. However, many Pacific Islanders like Palsis live and work legally in the United States. are not eligible for compensation even though they were among the most affected by the coronavirus.
Those excluded are citizens of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau who are subject to treaties with the United States known as pacts of free association. The agreements allowed citizens of those countries to remain in the United States indefinitely in exchange for U.S. military strategic control over a large part of the western Pacific.
Pandemic-inspired border closures have left some Pacific migrants who want to bury loved ones at home while waiting for their island countries to reopen. But even those who choose to bury their loved ones in Hawaii have struggled to bear the high costs.
The FEMA program started accepting applications on April 12 families who can prove that their loved one died of COVID-19 in a US state or territory. The deceased person does not have to have any particular legal status.
Families can receive up to $ 9,000 per funeral or $ 35,500 if they have paid for multiple funerals. So far there is a high demand – nearly a million people reportedly called the program within the first 90 minutes.
US Senator Mazie Hirono said she has heard from many Micronesian community leaders concerned about the problem and is working on a solution.
“My office is working to understand if FEMA has some flexibility in interpreting applicable law in order to make COFA citizens eligible for funeral benefits,” she said in an emailed statement.
“If we determine that a change in the law is needed, I will work on the legislation to make the changes necessary to ensure that COFA citizens are eligible for this benefit and other critical social safety net programs. “
In Hawaii, people in those countries are among those who have suffered the brunt of the pandemic, with data showing that Pacific Islanders – excluding native Hawaiians – have reported the highest rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths compared to other ethnic groups.
A recent state report found that non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders were 14 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the average Hawaii resident and 38 times more likely to die than white Hawaii residents.
Palsis, 53, moved to Hawaii in 1989 from Kosrae, Micronesia to attend business school and learn flooring, plumbing and other skills. He and his 28-year-old wife, a registered nurse, raised their family in Aiea before moving to Kalihi.
But when the pandemic struck, Palsis said he lost his job at a flooring company. He said his wife Brocula, 65, was already unemployed before the pandemic because she suffered from diabetes and was too sick to work.
Brocula died on October 1, days after contracting COVID-19.
“It was very sudden,” Palsis said in a telephone interview. “It’s hard to talk about it.”
Palsis also caught COVID-19 but survived. He paid for his wife’s funeral with the help of family, friends and church. But it was still a huge cost, totaling about $ 13,000. Since then, Palsis has struggled to pay his rent while working part-time.
He had hoped that FEMA’s funeral program would help him pay off his rent and avoid eviction.
But he learned he was being left out and started looking for other rent subsidy options and cheaper, smaller housing.
Hawaii isn’t the only state where Pacific Islanders have been hit hard by COVID-19. The community has reported high rates in several states, including Oregon and parts of Washington and Iowa.
In Arkansas, where many Marshalles work in chicken factories, the CDC at one point during the pandemic found that residents of Marshalles were 65 times more likely to die than white Arkansas residents.
Melisa Laelan, who heads the nonprofit Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, has spent the past year helping families care for sick loved ones, avoid deportation, and bury family members who have died from COVID -19. She is disappointed with the limits of the funeral fundraising program.
“It’s just another systemic injustice,” she said.
A recurrent issue
Part of what’s frustrating for Laelan is that the exclusion from the federal program comes just four months after Congress reinstated Medicaid for the community.
“It looks like you solve one problem and another pops up,” she says. “It looks like this revolving door in progress and now I’m starting to think there will never be an end to the fight.”
The 1996 Welfare Reform Act removed Compact migrants’ eligibility for many federal welfare programs. In fact, they are treated as temporary residents under the law, even though their legal status allows them to stay in the United States indefinitely.
Some get green cards and become U.S. citizens, but many live here for decades and die here without doing so, in part because there is no Compact Migrant Lane to obtain permanent residence.
Although access to Medicaid has recently been restored, the community is still not eligible for other programs such as Social Security Supplementary Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Social Security Program. supplemental nutritional assistance, also known as food stamps, according to a 2019 report from a Hawaii advisory group. to the United States Civil Rights Commission which recommended reinstating migrants’ eligibility for several programs.
In 2018, following Super Typhoon Yutu over Saipan, migrants who lost their homes in the disaster were not eligible for FEMA disaster assistance.
There were other systemic challenges as well. After Congress left the community out of the REAL ID Act, it took more than a decade to resolve the issue and allow them full access to federally approved driver’s licenses. Last year, Hawaii excluded the legal status of migrants from applying for unemployment insurance, even though people who work are eligible for it.
Laelan and other community advocates were excited about the funeral assistance program, but now see it as just one more program they pay into as taxpayers, but do not have access to.
“We are the most affected by the death of COVID and now we are excluded from this program,” said Laelan. “It really doesn’t make sense (that) the people who need it most, we are eliminating them.”