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Lawmakers vow re-try on allowing Marshallese lawmen

by Doug Thompson | February 15, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.
Police lights are shown in this file photo.

Arkansans can expect a renewed effort to make Marshallese citizens eligible to serve as law enforcement officers, lawmakers say.

"It's going to get done and get done right one way or the other," said Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs. Lundstrum spoke in a telephone interview four days after a bill to allow Marshallese citizens to serve failed in a House committee.

Citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a former U.S. trust territory, can freely come to the United States and stay, but they remain citizens of their home republic.

Only U.S. citizens are eligible to be law enforcement officers in Arkansas, according to state law.

The largest number of Marshallese in the United States outside of Hawaii live in Arkansas, U.S. census figures show, drawn by affordable living and ready employment. Arkansas is home to an estimated 15,000 Marshallese, according to federal Census Bureau estimates. Most of them live in Northwest Arkansas, census figures show.

A bill to make legally resident Marshallese eligible to be certified law enforcement officers failed to get through the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Feb. 8.

House Bill 1342 probably won't be brought back for another try, said its sponsor, Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, in a telephone interview.

But she and other lawmakers are asking the state Department of Public Safety to find a way through regulations to allow Marshallese to serve if that is possible, Godfrey said. She has not yet heard back from the agency, she said in an a telephone interview Wednesday.

Legislative options still exist if regulations cannot find an acceptable, legal and full option, Lundstrum said in her telephone interview Thursday. Another bill on the topic was filed the same day as Godfrey's and has not been brought before the committee. Lundstrum is a co-sponsor of HB 1333 by Rep. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, which would also make Marshallese eligible to be officers.

"Allowing the Marshallese to serve in our police force is an important issue," Penzo said in a statement Saturday. "I just want the issue to be resolved for my Marshallese constituents so they can help keep our communities safe."

Rep. Gayla McKenzie, R-Gravette, said she heard from constituents after the issue was raised in the Legislature. Speaking at a legislative forum hosted by Rogers-Lowell and Bentonville chambers of commerce, she said: "I do think this will happen one way or the other. I do think there's support for this."

At least one legislative committee member expressed concerns about noncitizens as police in Monday's meeting. Others wondered aloud if the matter could be handled by a regulation change. The fact she is a Democrat in a Republican-dominated Legislature, Godfrey said, was also a factor.

If a change cannot be made by regulation, bills can be filed to make the change at any time while the current legislative session lasts, according to the body's rules. The March 1 deadline only applies to appropriation bills, according to those rules.

Becoming a U.S. citizen takes years, said Cpl. Joel Minor, a deputy with the Washington County sheriff's office. Minor is restricted to in-office duty because he cannot legally patrol.

"I was raised here as a kid and never knew about the restrictions until I decided to become a law enforcement officer," he said, coming to the region with his parents when he was a small child.

The fastest way for a Marshallese citizen to become a U.S. citizen is to join the military, Minor said. Marshallese are eligible to enlist despite not having U.S. citizenship. But the military option defeats much of the purpose of wanting to be a law enforcement officer and serve your local community, at least without serving a two-year enlistment first, he said.

"It's another reminder that we're not really considered part of the whole community," Minor said.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is more difficult for a Marshallese than, for example, a citizen of another country who has gone through the process to become a legal resident, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Policy procedures. Legal residents from another country will have completed many of the steps needed for citizenship when they qualified for their "green card," or legal residency, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration policy. Marshallese require no such procedures and have to start from the beginning to become citizens.

Young Marshallese living in the United States who are passionate about becoming police are influenced by their culture, said Benetick Maddison, program specialist at the Marshallese Educational Initiative in Springdale. The initiative is a nonprofit group that advocates for Northwest Arkansas' Marshallese population.

"This passion comes from the values ingrained in our culture -- love, respect and kindness toward each other," he said in a statement Friday. "Helping the community is a cultural obligation. Everyone has an essential role to play for the betterment of our community."

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder said in an interview he thinks it's unfair to allow Marshallese to enlist in the armed services while prohibiting them from policing their own communities and protecting their neighbors.

"It's a whole issue of fairness," Helder said. "If we're willing to let them fight and die for us, we ought to be willing to let them serve our community."

Both Helder and spokesman Lt. Jeff Taylor of the Springdale Police Department said their agencies need Marshallese recruits. The obvious reason is for the language skills, both said, but there's also the need to forge ties with the Marshallese community, to build trust and to widen the pool of qualified applicants, they said.

"I've had a lot of people call who are interested in joining after this bill came up," Taylor said. "We're not got to change our hiring practices at all," said Taylor, a remark echoed by Helder in a separate interview. Law enforcement agencies need Marshallese, but won't give them favored treatment to get them, both Taylor and Hester said.

Besides the language skills, police need officers who understand Marshallese culture and can speak to Marshallese as members of that community, Taylor said.

"In the ice storm of 2009, we had Marshallese bringing their grills inside to keep themselves warm, unaware of the dangers," he said.

The Marshall Islands are in the Pacific Ocean, where islanders had no reason to know such a source of heat produces large amounts of dangerous carbon monoxide. Similar gaps between the two cultures can pose dangers, he said.

"We have a language line that can translate for us over the telephone in Spanish or German and a lot of other languages, but they don't have Marshallese," Taylor said.

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