Activist Spotlight: Joe Enlet Works to Uplift Pacific Islanders in the United States

"There needs to be a recognition that we are different—not in a way that is separatist, but in a way that affirms the unique stories, trauma and experiences of our culturally specific groups."
January 30, 2018

(Photo credit: Kielain Enlet)


According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are an estimated 1.2 million Pacific Islanders in the United States. From 2000 to 2010, the community grew 40 percent. Many live below the poverty line, and only 18 percent of Pacific Islanders have a bachelor’s degree.

Pastor Joe Enlet is trying to improve conditions for Pacific Islanders. Enlet, who lives in Portland, OR, is from Chuuk State, which is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. Today, he is emerging as one of the most outspoken and dynamic leaders of the Pacific Islander community in the United States.

Enlet serves as a board member of the Compact of Free Association (COFA) Alliance National Network (CANN) and is currently working as Senior Policy Analyst and Community Liaison at Multnomah County Public Health Department in Portland, OR. Joe also serves as a policy commissioner and co-chair of the New Portlander Policy Commission with the City of Portland.

Hyphen interviewed him about Micronesia, his community’s reaction to Trump and how Asian Americans can be more inclusive to Pacific Islander issues.



What is the Compact of Free Association (COFA) and why does this term matter today?

The Compact of Free Association, or COFA, refers to an agreement created in the late '80s that governs the relationship between the United States and the three sovereign Micronesian Island nations, namely, the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. This unique compact relationship has facilitated financial aid for the developing island nations by the U.S. government with the purpose of helping to develop the islands and allow them to become self-sufficient. The compact has also given the United States exclusive military control over the entire Micronesian region, which covers a vast area of the north Pacific between Asia and Hawaii. Part of the compact agreement is the establishment of immigration provisions that allow citizens of the COFA countries to migrate to the United States to live, work and study freely.

Because of that, we COFA islanders have been able to migrate to the United States and its territories to live and raise our families while also contributing as working taxpayers. In recent years COFA islanders have been moving to the United States in larger numbers due to the lack of resources and educational opportunities and the absence of an adequately developed infrastructure in the home islands, even though that was the aim of the compact in the first place. Increasingly, people are being forced to move out of the islands due to the effects of climate change, which has altered the viability of a subsistence lifestyle. The small islands are also threatened by the sea-level rise, coastal line erosion and more frequent flooding. There is now a significant number of COFA islanders in the United States.

However, the barrier that COFA islanders are facing today, among others, is the fact that in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act reclassified COFA islanders and made them categorically ineligible for most federal safety net programs including Medicaid, Welfare, Food Stamps and other services. There is no access to any kind of basic services needed to get by in this society. This is in stark contradiction to the intent of the compact relationship. On top of that, COFA islanders continue to pay all taxes that fund such services.   

Prior to the COFA agreement, the United States had colonized the islands since WWII and for decades had established a very visible military presence. This included military bases being built on Kwajelein Atoll of the Marshall Islands and the devastating nuclear bomb testing of the 1950s, which destroyed natural resources and has caused major medical complications, forced migration and ultimately shorter lifespans. Today, it is very apparent that Micronesia’s strategic military value to the United States is even more acute as our islands are being caught in the middle of the geopolitical strife between the United States and North Korea. The treatment of COFA islanders by the United States is one of the great injustices of our time.       


There is a new documentary out called Island Soldier that talks about the history of Micronesians serving in the U.S. military, as well as the discrimination many experience while living in Hawaii. Why do Micronesians serve in the U.S. military at such a high rate, and why are many of them subject to abuse while living in Hawaii?

As I mentioned earlier, the military value of the islands cannot be underestimated. Many Micronesian islanders join the military partly because the United States has a robust recruitment strategy in the islands and has been doing so for decades. The islands are often called the “recruiter’s paradise.” Per capita, there are more Micronesians in the U.S. military than any U.S. state and Micronesian soldiers have faced a higher casualty rate in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than U.S. citizens. Micronesians join the military because there aren’t too many opportunities after high school in the islands, so military service is perceived as a way to better one’s fortunes and is seen as an opportunity to make something of themselves. Young Micronesians are promised a better life, access to higher education, financial benefits and a chance to fight for the “good cause.” They are also not well informed of the risks of military service. Yet, even with the presence of military bases and heavy recruitment efforts, there are no veteran services provided in the islands unless they pay for expensive airplane tickets to travel to Hawaii or the U.S. mainland to receive those services.

The discrimination against Micronesians in Hawaii and other places such as Guam stems from the larger narrative of “fear of the foreigner.” As the newest immigrant group, Micronesians are being targeted and scapegoated as the cause of the larger society’s problems. In Hawaii, government officials themselves have perpetuated the narrative that Hawaii’s economic problems are caused by Micronesians burdening the system. This narrative has been widely documented in articles and journals that show that much of what is being told is unfair, factually unfounded and an irresponsible representation of data. Micronesians are also a convenient target because the islands are geographically small and Micronesia has not always been given its due respect.  Even the western designation of “Micronesia” refers to the smallness of the islands. We islanders believe that the ocean is our home, which makes it the biggest home on earth.

One example of Micronesia’s contribution to mankind is the ancient art of seafaring and navigation, which Micronesian navigators have single-handedly gifted to the world and modern society. You’ll find a lot of commercialization and claiming of the art of navigation today, but there is little to no mention of Micronesia whatsoever. What is happening in Hawaii with the revival of traditional navigation is a direct result of the work of Master Navigator Mau Piailug of Micronesia, who is credited to have been the one responsible for teaching navigation to Hawaii. No one can deny that much of the movie Moana, which showcased the art of navigation, stems from this revival. But does anyone talk about Micronesia at all? It is ironic that even with this contribution, Micronesians are still demeaned and discriminated against. Even in the land of Aloha.     


What are some of the concerns your community members are telling you about the Trump administration?

Many COFA islanders in the United States are concerned about what will happen to our people here and our islands back home under the administration of a president who has clearly shown an anti-immigrant agenda. For years, COFA islanders have faced difficulties due to the relative obscurity of their status. There is certainly a heightened sense of fear for what the administration is doing with regards to immigrants. Most people in the mainstream culture do not know about Micronesia, let alone understand the COFA immigration status. Because of that, some have had difficulty to even get a job, get a regular driver’s license or obtain a Social Security card for which they qualify. COFA islanders have also been deported at higher rates in recent times. People are also concerned about what the United States will do with our islands when the financial assistance portion of the Compact terminates in 2023.

The proposed Trumpcare was again an example of how Trump’s policies are harmful for our communities. Although ineligible for Medicaid, COFA islanders were eligible for APTC or tax credits through the Obamacare marketplace. In Trumpcare, even those tax credits were going to be stripped away from COFA, so that we would not have been eligible for those much-needed subsidies. What’s worse is COFA islanders become even more excluded to the point that we would not even be eligible to purchase any private insurance in the marketplace with our own money! Basically, treating us as undocumented immigrants. This is not a story that would receive much attention in mainstream media but it seems that there is a methodical and intentional effort to exclude even the smallest of immigrant groups.   


Asian American events and organizations often leave out Pacific Islanders. Why do you think that is, and what can be done to make these spaces more inclusive?

This is true. We Pacific islanders often feel left out of these so-called API spaces. The API category has harmed our communities by grouping us together and hiding the real stories that are unique to our communities. We, Pacific islanders, feel that at times we are used by larger Asian American organizations to get resources and build their base, but we never really get our fair share of those resources, and we don’t often have the same level of decision-making power. This is because, unless we are aware and intentional, we minority groups can also make the same mistake of dominating over the “other” and excluding them.

There needs to be a recognition that we are different—not in a way that is separatist, but in a way that affirms the unique stories, trauma and experiences of our culturally specific groups. To affirm the integrity of our cultural identities is to be honest about who we are. It leads to the respect of people’s dignity. API organizations must be honest about whether they really are serving PI’s, whether they really have a critical mass in their membership to justify the “PI” in their name and whether there is equity in organizational decision-making.

There must also be discipline in how we talk about ourselves. I have been in API organizations where the leaders/representatives speak in public and forget to say “Pacific Islanders” when referring to the community they serve. I have seen them literally stutter when they say Asian American and Pacific Islanders. It feels almost like we Pacific Islanders are the bastard children who happen to be invited to the party. There is a need to build the Pacific Islander identity and Pacific Islander organizations, centers and leaders.  


Please tell our readers a bit about Chuuk State. What was it like growing up there? What are some of the challenges residents there face today?

Chuuk State is my beloved home. I was born on an island called Weno which is in Chuuk State. Growing up in Chuuk was simple (not easy, but simple). Life was not enslaved to time, but we made time for the things that were of value. Knowing people and where you come from was paramount. Though we did not always have access to the modern amenities of the 21st century, we were happy with what we had. There was a sense that even when things weren’t going so well, we knew that we had people and they were our sense of security. We were on the land and near the ocean, our natural resources, which meant that everything we needed was at arm’s length. Certainly, it was not perfect and we had our challenges.

Today, although much of that still remains, there are definitely a lot of changes and a lot of challenges. The Pacific Islands continue to be threatened by climate change, economic pressures and geopolitical issues. Many fishermen say that there is a significant decrease in the fish in our ocean. The rising sea level is also affecting the viability of crops that people rely on to feed their families. There has been a higher frequency of hurricanes and floods in the islands in the last several years. The changing culture in Chuuk with an increased appetite for Western goods and Western technology has changed traditional ways and has diminished traditional norms of respect and honor. For instance, although cell phones and social media have become increasingly popular with Chuukese and have made connection far easier than it used to be, it has come with a price. Facebook has created a platform that some have used to say and do things that are not always healthy for Chuukese culture and society.

Chuuk has also been facing economic challenges in sustaining the semi-Western economy that is present in the islands. Education achievement levels are extremely low, there is a lack of adequate health services, the infrastructure is still not able to serve the islands well and government mismanagement is becoming more and more prevalent. The end of financial assistance from the Compact with the United States will terminate in 2023, and there is no backup plan for how to sustain operations after 2023. Chuuk, one of the four states in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), is looking at independence from the country as a possible way forward. But this has also been very controversial, and many people are not happy about this. Many people are skeptical about the move for independence, and many people seem to lack faith in those who are spearheading this movement.

There is so much uncertainty and unrest in the islands and specifically in my beloved Chuuk. We need strong and honest leadership today. In this unstable world and these challenging times in the Trump era, we Pacific Islanders have an ever urgent responsibility to tell our story and participate in the larger movement to create a more understanding and respectful world for all.      


Zahir Janmohamed

Senior Co-Editor, News, Politics, and Social Justice

Zahir Janmohamed is a Senior News Editor at Hyphen magazine, as well as the co-host of Racist Sandwich, a podcast about food, race, gender, and class. He is a 2017 fiction fellow at Kundiman.