Legislator Files Bill Permitting COFA Migrants to Become Police Officers

Law enforcement officers are required to be U.S. citizens under current state law.

Marshallese Law Enforcement Officers
Springdale police officers share a video about the pandemic with the Marshallese community. Courtesy: Springdale Police Department

A new bill has been filed to expand who is eligible to become a police officer in the state of Arkansas. House Bill 1342, known as the Marshallese Law Enforcement Act, would amend state law to allow nonimmigrants legally admitted to the United States under a Compact of Free Association to apply for positions as police officers.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Megan Godfrey, a Democrat representing Springdale, a city with a large Marshallese population. Under Compacts of Free Association, citizens from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau are given free entry to the U.S. in exchange for military access to their ocean territories. 

“We just found a really good common sense solution to a problem that exists in that Marshallese who are here legally but are not citizens cannot serve as law enforcement, and so this just expands the eligibility in the law to allow them to serve their communities,” Rep. Godfrey says. 

Expanding eligibility can increase diversity in law enforcement agencies, which may help build trust between police departments and communities of color. Events of the past year such as police reform protects have demonstrated the importance of having “law enforcement that have good, strong relationships with the communities they serve,” Godfrey says.

“This is an opportunity to promote community safety and trust, to prove that representation matters, and to expand a police force, not only in number but also in diversity, and to allow those who protect and serve their communities to look more like them and to be more connected culturally and linguistically,” she says.

Rep. Godfrey has collaborated on this bill with local law enforcement as well as the consul general for the Springdale consulate of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. 

The Arkansas bill is inspired by similar legislation in Oregon, which has a large population of Pacific Islanders. In 2017, the Oregon state legislature approved a bill that permits COFA migrants to apply to become police officers. The law went into effect Jan. 1, 2018.

“If that can happen in Oregon, why not here?” Consul General Eldon Alik asks.

Prior to assuming his role as consul general in Springdale in 2017, Alik lived in Oregon where he did advocacy work with the Marshallese community. Although there are communities of Marshallese migrants in other parts of the state, Alik estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000 just in Northwest Arkansas.

As Alik learned more about his new community, he discovered some Marshallese residents were members of the Springdale Police Department, while others worked with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, but only as contractors because they weren’t U.S. citizens. There are also members of the Marshallese community who don’t work for any law enforcement agency, but would like to.

“I was contacted by quite a few that came to me and said they didn’t bother to apply because they know they would be rejected, but they really want to join,” Alik says.

After hearing these requests, the counsel general reached out to Rep. Godfrey and they’ve been working on the legislation for about two years. Alik says he is grateful for the support of this initiative, which he calls a “win-win situation for everybody.”

“It will just promote peace,” he says. “It will promote trust with the Marshallese and the police department. I think it will lessen crimes for sure.”

Passage of the bill would support the education of Marshallese who don’t understand the laws here, Alik says. And although there is a little bit of distrust of police among the Marshall Islanders, he says it’s not to the extent of what’s seen in the Black community. For the most part, it’s in the nature of the Marshallese people to respect authorities, he says.

To those who may oppose the legislation, Alik points to Marshall Islanders’ history with the military. Eligible Marshallese citizens may serve in the U.S. military and do, volunteering at per capita rates higher than many states, according to the U.S. Department of State

“If we can defend this country, why can’t we defend the town?” he asks. 

The bill has bipartisan support. Republican colleagues who have reached out asking to be added as co-sponsors, Rep. Megan Godfrey says. Republican Rep. Keith Slape was the only co-sponsor listed on the bill when it was filed Jan. 28.

The bill has been referred to the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs and it is on the group’s Feb. 3 agenda. You can watch a livestream of the committee debating bill when they convene at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow at www.arkleg.state.ar.us.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.