Marshallese Law Enforcement Act Stalls in Committee

The bill would grant Marshallese migrants the right to become police officers.

Eldon Alik and Rep. Megan Godfrey
Rep. Megan Godfrey presentst HB1342 to the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Feb. 3, 2021.

Rep. Megan Godfrey, a Democrat from Springdale, presented House Bill 1342 to the members of the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs yesterday. After a few committee members voiced concerns that one section of the bill could be interpreted in a way that would extend the eligibility to become a police officer to noncitizens besides Marshallese migrants, Rep. Godfrey offered to pull the bill down and amend it before bringing it back. The committee approved the decision.

HB1342, also known as the Marshallese Law Enforcement Act, was filed Jan. 28 and yesterday was the first time it was presented to the House Committee on State Agencies. Currently, state law requires police officers to be United States citizens. If approved, the bill would expand eligibility to migrants who live and work in the country legally under a Compact of Free Association. COFA nations include the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated State of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau. 

Eldon Alik is the consul general of the Springdale consulate of the RMI and he spoke in favor of the bill Wednesday. Allowing all Marshallese migrants in the state, not just those who are U.S. citizens, to become certified law enforcement officers will “enhance peace, build trust and unite our communities,” Alik said.

“We have a handful of Marshallese who are members of the Springdale police force right now. Let me tell you, they are some of the most admired and respected members of our community, especially the Marshallese community,” he said. “Let’s get more to join the police ranks.”

Rep. John Payton, a Republican from Wilburn, said although he was comfortable with Marshallese residents serving their community in this way, he was concerned about the type of precedent this would set.

“The United States has very close relations with other nations and we are setting a precedent here when we put into code that noncitizens can be law enforcement and have police powers, so that concerns me,” Rep. Payton said.

While the first part of the bill contains language that very narrowly tailors this legislation to the Marshallese community, Rep. Payton says that same type of language is missing from the final section of the bill. Rep. Godfrey acknowledged that Rep. Jim Dotson, a Republican from Bentonville, had the same question.

“I think it’s valid to bring it up, but certainly the intention of my collaboration with law enforcement, with the Department of Public Safety who’s vetted this bill and has signed off on it, has always been to narrowly tailor all eligible officers under that Compact of Free Association,” Godfrey said.  

After further discussion about this specific language in the bill, the legislation was tabled so it could be amended. The bill is expected to be presented to the committee once it has been updated. 

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.