Kejmen Christine Alfred had another journey to make. The twenty-one-year-old had already come to the small city of Dubuque, Iowa, from her home in the Marshall Islands, the tiny Pacific island nation as far from Hawaii as Hawaii is from the U.S. mainland.
This new trip would be considerably shorter, but it dredged up the same anxieties. Alfred drove from her neighborhood in the diverse, low-income "flats" of Dubuque, down on the Mississippi River's edge, up into the overwhelmingly white, mansion-studded bluffs that overlook the dramatic gorge separating Iowa from two other states.
On the other side of the bluffs, she walked into the far end of a low-slung strip mall and to the local Social Security Administration office. She had just been married, wanted to change her last name, and needed a new Social Security card to confirm her married status so she could enroll in college courses.
She was told that her paperwork was incomplete. Her application was denied.
Alfred told her mother, Irene Ernest, a leader among the small community of Marshall Islanders who have made their home in Dubuque over the last two decades. After several exchanges with the Social Security office, Ernest called Taj Suleyman, the equity outreach coordinator at the city's human rights department. He agreed to escort Alfred on her next visit himself. She was granted her new card.
"A lot of time, the staff are unaware of the [Marshallese immigration] status, so they turn them away," Suleyman tells me, adding that other similar cases with the office remain unresolved. Even if they are rubber-stamped by Social Security, he says, getting organizations and employers to accept Marshallese paperwork is another hurdle. "They're not familiar with the different IDs or different documentation," he says, so they decline to hire.
Marshall Islanders are dark-skinned, generally poor, and often don't speak English. Especially during a time of stoked anti-immigrant sentiment, some might assume they are here illegally.
But in fact, this small population is in the United States on an open invitation from the federal government. Their unusual immigration status was extended as reparations for the damage to their nation's ecosystem and public health wrought by U.S. nuclear tests on the islands. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. military conducted tests there equivalent to dropping 7,200 Hiroshima-sized bombs.
Marshall Islanders have since moved to the United States by the thousands, most to white areas of the country, including Arkansas and Oklahoma, though a sizable community manages to get by in expensive Hawaii. Many more continue to make this move as rising waters caused by climate change pound the country's twenty-nine coral atolls, washing their homes and even whole cemeteries out to sea.
Now Dubuque finds itself home to a fast-growing Marshallese community, an interesting distinction for a city still haunted by its reputation as "The Selma of the North."
Two years ago, Art Roche, on his way to retirement as director of planning at Dubuque's Mercy Medical Center, was looking for a way to fulfill the nonprofit hospital's obligations to provide community outreach. After various meetings he learned that as many as half the area's Marshallese adults were living with diabetes.