US deports steady stream of Marshall Islanders

4:36 pm on 18 September 2015

Marshall Islanders have been deported from the United States at greater rate over recent years. Government data indicates that over the past 15 years, there's a rate of sixteen deportations of Marshall Islanders per year.

While there's been a slight decline in the deportation rate this year, overall the numbers have increased dramatically from 2011. It coincides with ongoing heavy Marshallese out-migration to the US, with an average of over 1,000 islanders leaving to the US annually since the late 1990s.

More than 30,000 Marshall Islanders are estimated to be living in the US. Among the driving factors behind the Marshallese exodus are the enduring negative health impacts from American nuclear bomb tests in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the upheavals created by rising sea levels due to climate change have been leaving their home islands.

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Many Marshall Islanders look to migrate to the US Photo: supplied

However, a number of those who leave the Marshall Islands find themselves having to return. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Majuro maintains records of deportations that are provided by US law enforcement authorities. Data maintained since 2002 shows that deportations were single digit through 2006, with the largest number in one year being nine during 2004.

Ten deportations in 2007 heralded the beginning of an increasing trend of Marshall Islanders being deported from the US, following convictions for a variety of offenses. To date, 2013 was the single biggest year, with 37 people being sent back to the Marshall Islands after being convicted of a variety of criminal offences.

The numbers appear to have dropped off in the first part of this year, with 18 reported through last month, but this is still above the 14-year average of 16 annually.

Passengers arriving at John F Kennedy Airport in New York from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea will be assessed for signs of illness.

JFK airport. Deported Marshall Islanders have usually been convicted of a variety of criminal offences from violent assaults to failing to pay taxes. Photo: AFP

According to the data, crimes of "moral turpitude" are offences that often lead to deportation from the US, although the definition of "moral turpitude" is not defined in US or state law. These matters are left to government agencies and courts to decide.

Crimes that have led to deportations for Marshall Islanders range from violent assaults to failing to pay taxes. The most common elements involving moral turpitude are fraud, larceny and intent to harm persons or property.

In years past, reports locally and from the Federated States of Micronesia indicated that deportees sometimes attempted name changes to get new passports for returning to the US. But if this practice was successful in the past, US authorities have made clear it's unlikely to work in the future.

Immigration has instituted finger printing and photographing of foreign citizens on arrival in the States, a development that would normally red flag anyone previously arrested in the US.