SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's longtime Pacific Islander community remains mostly Polynesian, but new census data show that others from a constellation of Pacific nations also call the Beehive State home.
"We're such a small group, and yet there's so much diversity within that group," said Melsihna Folau, who is from Pohnpei. She has watched as scores of families from the region have moved to Utah and grown their families here.
Figures released late Wednesday from the U.S. Census Bureau shed light on the differences, showing that in 2016, more than 2,300 Micronesians — those from the Marshall Islands, as well as Guam and a collection of other tiny island nations — were living in Utah.
It's a big difference from 1989, when Folau and her husband moved to Utah and counted three other families from Micronesia, a home region not considered in census estimates until 2015.
Micronesians face unique challenges in Utah: They are allowed to live and work here permanently through an international agreement, but they're not citizens, so affording health care and paying for college can prove elusive.
Driven by rising ocean waters and the prospect of better schools, jobs and health care, many Micronesians are moving to the states. Most opt to start new lives in Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest and in Arkansas. But some have elected to join Utah's roughly 140-year-old Pacific Islander community, though it's not clear exactly when they arrived, according to the new data.
"It shows us they're present and very small," said Pam Perlich, director of demography at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. The number is too diminutive for Perlich to parse income, age and the exact neighborhoods they're living in. But it's clear they are scattered among northern Utah's urban corridor, she said, likely in and around West Valley, Kearns and pockets of Salt Lake City.
"It's definitely a gathering place for those populations because of that historic tie to the LDS Church," Perlich noted. "It's a large ethnic enclave which has deep historic roots."
Folau points to anecdotal evidence that the new group is getting larger. As a teacher at Pacific Heritage Academy charter school in Salt Lake City, she has seen Micronesian students there grow from a handful to about a dozen within years.
"There's growth there," Folau said.
Charlene Lui, director of diversity for Granite School District, agreed. There are 143 Micronesian students in Granite schools, she said, and 116 are Marshallese.
Despite the observed growth, the group is a fraction of Utah’s 44,000 Pacific Islanders — which include more than 39,000 Polynesians (Native Hawaiians, Tongans, Samoans and others), a small number of Fijians and others.
Micronesians' small share has not prevented long-established Pacific Islander neighborhoods from welcoming the newcomers, said Jake Fitisemanu, founder of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition.
“We’re not competing for resources. If anything, our communities are coming together,” Fitisemanu said, adding that reports of Micronesians moving to Hawaii and overwhelming health and public resources there have not stoked the same tension in Utah.
For older generations of Pacific Islanders, memories of a difficult transition to a new place 8,000 miles from home are still fresh, Fitisemanu said.
“My dad says his generation is the houseguest. They’re trying to keep their nose clean and stay out of trouble, but my brothers feel this is their house."
Even with a warm welcome, feeling at home in Utah can take extra work for Micronesians.
The group faces "very different social issues" from Pacific Islanders who have long lived in Utah, said Susi Feltch-Malohifo'ou, of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources.
“We’re not eligible for Medicaid. A lot of us don’t have insurance,” Folau said, even though many in the community face long-term health issues related to radioactive fallout from U.S. government nuclear tests in the islands in 1940s and ’50s.
Their children studying in the U.S. are barred from financial aid. So Folau and others in the community are urging their college-bound students to apply for Pell Grants, federal money for low-income students that is open to them and does not need to be repayed.
In another bureaucratic snare, Micronesians must also visit the state driver license office every year. It’s an inconvenient fact of life in Utah — unless they become citizens, the state does not grant them a permanent state ID, Folau said.
“It just does not make sense,” Folau said. “I still feel like I’m a new Utah resident, and I moved here in 1989.”
Without a permanent ID, buying or renting a house and getting a loan can prove elusive, Fitisemanu noted.6 comments on this story
He, Folau and others are preparing to ask state lawmakers to clarify in Utah Code that Micronesians are legal U.S. residents under the terms of the decades-old agreement known as the Compact of Free Association.
The group also seeks to erase the one-year expiration on their licenses, and still are crafting their request to legislators.
Also a newly elected West Valley City councilman, Fitisemanu tells lawmakers and others that the moniker of Pacific Islander is far from homogenous.
Says Fitisemanu: “There are hundreds of different languages, world views and cultures encompassing that term.”