Marshallese Law Enforcement Act Fails in Committee

Bill would have allowed COFA migrants legally living in the U.S. to become police officers.

House Bill 1342 failed in the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs yesterday. After passing on a voice vote, the legislation failed on a roll call due to lack of votes. Seven committee members voted yes, four voted no and the remaining members did not cast a vote.

Rep. Megan Godfrey, a Democrat from Springdale is the lead sponsor of HB1342, also known as the Marshallese Law Enforcement Act. The legislation 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. Currently, Arkansans must be a U.S. citizen to apply. Marshall Islanders are allowed to serve in the U.S. military and volunteer at per capita rates higher than many states, according to the U.S. Department of State

The bill, which had bipartisan support, was tabled in committee last week after some committee members voiced concerns the legislation could be interpreted to allow other noncitizens to become police officers. Rep. Godfrey amended the bill to address the concern and presented it in committee yesterday. Rep. John Payton, a Republican from Wilburn, said while he appreciated the amendment, he didn’t like the precedent the legislation would set. 

“I think we all love this community and appreciate them, and if I felt like it was just dealing with them and would never become any broader, I might could support it,” Rep. Payton said. “But I see a precedence that we’re setting here, letting noncitizens serve as state police and auxiliary, that I can’t get comfortable with.”

Rep. Fred Love, a Democrat from Mabelvale, spoke in favor of the bill because he said it would help address the language barrier that can prove problematic when trying to serve the Marshallese population. 

“The language barriers are really the issue in why it’s so vitally important that we incorporate this community within the police force so that we’re able to effectively communicate with them,” Rep. Love said. “It’s not that they’re choosing not to, it’s that there are just some real gaps in the service that they can provide.” 

Some committee members said the goal of the bill could be accomplished with a rule change instead of amending the law.

Rep. Godfrey did not respond to requests for comment. She did file a new bill yesterday that would allow a public school district to adopt an approved bilingual program or dual-immersion program. HB1451 has been referred to the House Committee on Education.

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.