(This is the first installment in The Stakes 2020, a series of interviews with community leaders, organizers, and advocates highlighting what's at stake for Southern communities in this year's election. We're going beyond the candidates on the ballot to dig into how elections influence the policies, budgets, and regulations that affect Southerners' everyday lives. Find the rest of the interviews here.)
In the 1940s and 1950s, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, a country of 29 atolls encompassing more than 1,000 individual islands in the Pacific Ocean. Those tests spread radioactive fallout across the Islands that still contaminates the country's air, food, and water, making some of its atolls uninhabitable, and has hurt residents' health. The environmental damage begun by nuclear tests has been worsened by climate change, as increased flooding and rising ocean water encroaches on the islands. In 1986, the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands signed a Compact of Free Association (COFA), which allowed Marshallese to move freely to and from the U.S. That expires in 2023.
More than 10,000 Marshallese people now live in Northwest Arkansas, many of them working in the area's poultry plants. The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly hard on the community; more than 50 Marshallese have died in Northwest Arkansas alone. Community leaders believe some of these deaths could have been prevented if Marshallese were still eligible for Medicaid, the health care program for low-income people that was originally promised under the COFA but rescinded under the Clinton administration's 1996 welfare reform bill. The legislation left it up to individual states to decide whether to continue offering insurance coverage, and Arkansas has failed to do so. Consequently, significant numbers of Marshallese remain uninsured — especially the elderly, most of whom are also ineligible for the Medicare social insurance program for people age 65 and older.
Albious Latior is one of the Marshallese community's most visible faces in Northwest Arkansas. Since the pandemic began, he's acted as facilitator, translator, and coordinator, helping gather resources for his community to stave off evictions, keep up with car payments, conduct food drives and stock pantries, negotiate with poultry company employers — and register the first generation of Marshallese born in the U.S. to vote, a right not available to their islands-born parents.
We spoke with him about what voting means for the Marshallese community's ability to advocate for health care in Arkansas, and what other Arkansans and Americans should know about the growing community. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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What work have you been doing over the past several months during COVID?
I've been trying to help my Marshallese family and also trying to find resources for them to help them all get on their feet again during COVID. I've been helping match them with sponsors or a family that "adopts" them, and also help with the evictions notices, help with car payments, help with food. One of the things I just did is help Marshallese Americans that have turned 18 and first-time voters register to vote.
Why did you work so hard on voter registration, particularly in the last month or so? Why was that such an important issue?
The reason why it's important, I believe, is that we need to have a voice. Because there are so many in local government, state government, and also national government [who if they] see that we have a movement, they will realize that we have a number. As of now I know that they don't really take us seriously. We are here legally, but we don't have the right to vote, so they don't really mind us. But after doing this and making people know that we are here, they will listen to our concerns. That's one of the things that we want. We want to make a movement, we want to make a voice, we want to let them know that we are here and we have a number.
For people who are going to read this interview who might not know the backstory of the Marshallese community, how you are here in the States, could you give a brief overview?
Marshallese have an agreement with the United States. We come here legally, because the U.S. used our island for their nuclear testing. We got promised that because of the radiation on our island, we could come here [under a Compact of Free Association]. But under the compact we are not eligible for a lot of stuff that we are entitled to — meaning that we pay taxes, but we don't get the benefits. In 1994 to 1995 a lot of people moved here because there was one Marshallese man that came here and went to school. His girlfriend was from Arkansas, and they moved here. And by word of mouth — family to family telling each other how easy it is to get a job at the poultry plant, and how nice it was living here — people started coming here.
How many Marshallese are citizens and are eligible to vote? Do you have a rough guess?
I think [beginning in] 2000, that's when a lot of [Marshallese people] were born here [in the United States, and thus citizens], because that's when we started to move here. So I think there is a lot. There were a few that already registered in the last few years, but I believe this year was the largest one that we did. I registered 103. So it's a good number.
So you registered over 100 people on your own. How did you find those folks, just word of mouth?
Yes. Word of mouth, and I know my community. For example, my nieces and nephews, that's nine of them right there — so their friend, and so then their friend. And I posted on Facebook letting [people] know that if they have a son, daughter, or family member or grandkid that are over the age of 18 and they are born here, talk to me. I got a lot of messages and I went house to house. I registered them, and I [asked if they] know any others that are born here. That's how I come to register them. And there was more than 50 of them that I did not get the chance to register.
Over 100 people — that's a whole new voting bloc, at least in some of those local and state elections.
What are some particular issues that you think elected officials have ignored that are important to the Marshallese community?
One of the things that we really want them to do better on is health care for us. Because back in 1996, there was a bill that passed in the President Clinton administration that marked us off from Medicaid [which Marshallese had previously been eligible for]. And that's one of the things that we really want to advocate for, Medicaid for our elders, and our Marshallese communities. We are here legally, paying taxes, but we are not eligible for that. We really want it.
I believe that's why we lost many of our community [during COVID-19], because a lot of them did not know that they have a chronic disease, because they do not go get a checkup, because they don't have a doctor, because they do not have any insurance. That's the thing that we're looking to say that we need to fix, because if it is fixed we could not have this thing repeated again. And we want them to listen.
For other Arkansas voters who maybe aren't that familiar with the Marshallese community, what should they know about your people?
We are part of their neighbors, we love to be here. We are friendly, and we are here to start a new life. The U.S. destroyed our islands and we cannot use our oceans, the water and land, because it has been bombed. So we are here, and we want to start our new life.
When it comes to local or state-level policy, I know that health care and access to Medicaid is a big deal. What are some other issues that are important?
As of now, I think health care is the biggest one. The second one is programs for our elders in our community. That's one of the things that I really want to advocate for is health care. Also our program needs for our Marshallese elders, our community members, knowing how to live a decent life in the U.S., or Arkansas — to help us understand and navigate through the system here, because a lot of them are new.
What are some of the differences between what life looks like in the Marshall Islands versus what it is like here?
One of the things is because back home, we were farming or fishing, everything is new to us. We didn't have to pay rent, no car payment, those kind of stuff.
I know there have been some problems in the community recently with evictions. Are there things people can do to assist? If someone was reading this and wanted to help out with rent payments or food or something, what could they do?
Contact me or Good Shepherd Lutheran Church to help the work I'm doing with the community, because every donation will help me help more of my community members.
Is there anything else that you think, before the election, people should know about the Marshallese community and what you need from the U.S. government or from the Arkansas state government?
The thing that we're really advocating for right now is health care for our elders. And also for our community. That's the most important thing that we want to fight for as of now.