In this tiny western Minnesota town, Michael Elias can't picture a return to his tropical birthplace in the western Pacific.
Natives of Micronesia such as Elias have flocked to this "Little Norway" on the prairie since 2000. Now, more than half the population of about 400 is Micronesian, an occasionally rocky transformation that some residents say reinvigorated the town.
"The Micronesians now belong to Milan, and Milan belongs to them," said Mayor Ron Anderson.
But even as the Micronesian community in Milan (pronounced MY-lan) sees its first homeowners and college students, its members remain essentially visitors. Under a longtime agreement, Micronesians can stay and work in the United States but have few pathways to citizenship.
A recent debate in Micronesia about pulling out of the agreement brought this in-between status into sharp relief, spurring anxiety and a petition Elias mailed to politicians back home. Community supporters have also turned to Minnesota lawmakers for help. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry this week about Milan's Micronesians.
"Though their legal status in the United States does not have an expiration date, it does not provide the long-term stability that families need," they wrote.
In a Milan park on a recent evening, residents helped themselves to a potluck meal: ribs, baked beans and blueberry crumble, but also fried bananas with coconut milk prepared by Elias' wife, Hellen Yowanes. Mostly white-haired residents shared picnic tables with Micronesian women wearing sports jerseys and hoodies over long, flower-patterned skirts.
Townspeople started these monthly get-togethers to encourage old-timers and Micronesians to mingle. In one of Milan's curious cultural juxtapositions, a narrow Pacific outrigger canoe and a replica Viking ship stood side by side nearby. After the meal, the vessels headed into storage, and Micronesian teens with backward baseball caps dragged the Viking ship replica down a Milan street.
When the first Micronesians arrived here, Milan's population had shrunk to about 300, from a heyday high of more than 680. The town was "the last bastion of white America," says Anderson — a place with "Velkommen til Milan" signs and a Norwegian Constitution Day parade.
"We always thought, 'Why would you leave a tropical paradise to come live in Milan, Minnesota?' " Anderson said.
That story technically starts back in 1979, when a local resident, Erik Thompson, went to the Micronesian island of Romanum with the Peace Corps. Years after his return, a man he had befriended on the island wrote to ask if he could visit Minnesota. Eventually, the man — Elias' uncle — moved to Milan with his family.
An estimated 15,000 Micronesians live in the U.S. under the country's 1986 Compact of Free Association, which gave the United States exclusive use of the islands for military exercises. Lagging economic development and anxieties about rising sea levels fuel migration.
Elias recalls his excitement at touching down in Minneapolis at age 19. As that first group of arrivals approached Milan in a van, he gazed with growing alarm at the spring fog swaddling sprawling fields and deserted sidewalks.
"Who lives here?" Elias asked Thompson, a Stanford-educated banker. "Old people, pretty much," he says Thompson responded.
The new Milan
As more Micronesians followed, tensions arose. Thompson fielded complaints about unmown front lawns, litter in the park and children dashing into the street. Meanwhile, Elias and Yowanes battled intense homesickness. Many in their community came so their children could get a better education, but young Micronesians were dropping out of high school to start jobs and families.
But over the years, Elias and Yowanes have grown to feel at home where two of their three children were born. Like many, Elias works a night shift at the Jennie-O Turkey plant in Montevideo. Yowanes is a teacher's aide in the Lac qui Parle Valley School District's Head Start program.
The family was one of the first Micronesians to own their home, the living room decorated with portraits of Jesus and seashell wind chimes. Elias, once baffled by local anglers on the ice-encrusted Lac qui Parle, is now an avid ice fisher.
The new arrivals have transformed Milan into a younger community and halted declining enrollment in the schools, where Micronesians now make up almost 10 percent of students. Newcomers and old-timers get along better, says Billy Thompson, a lifelong resident who runs the Arv Hus Museum downtown.
When the town replaced its 40-year-old Liberty Bell replica this year, the Micronesians chipped in and sang traditional songs at its dedication. When an Appleton store owner approached community leader Samuel Sepimon with security camera footage of a Micronesian man shoplifting, the man was on a plane back home within a week.
A bid to stay
In earlier years, Micronesians' immigration status used to rank low on the list of community concerns, well under the shortage of affordable housing for families who continue to arrive. But that has started to change. For the first time this fall, four Micronesian teens headed to local community colleges — even after discovering they don't qualify for federal student loans.
Several years ago, Bird Island resident Robert Ryan won a USDA grant to start a community garden and cooperative with the Micronesians. But the loan they needed to expand the operation is reserved for U.S. citizen farmers. Micronesians are also ineligible for federal programs such as Medicaid.
Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute says that status keeps them from integrating: "They don't feel fully connected to society because they are viewed as outsiders and visitors."
Late last year, developments back home gave the immigration question new urgency. Amid overtures from China, the Micronesian Congress considered a resolution to end the compact. Meanwhile, Chuuk, one of the four federated Micronesian states and the homeland of most Milan arrivals, started mulling an independence referendum.
Erika Raymond is one of 80 community members who signed Elias' petition against secession.
"Ending the compact would mean we are illegal immigrants, and that's scary for us," said Raymond, a mother of three U.S. citizen children.
Ryan enlisted the Humphrey School's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to explore possible avenues to permanent residence. Patrick Roisen, a Humphrey graduate student who researched the issue, says he found few. U.S. citizen children can sponsor their parents for green cards when they turn 21.
Roisen approached Franken's and Klobuchar's offices. In their letter to Kerry, the senators invoke the anxiety over talk of Chuuk independence and ask him to keep that community in mind and give them more details about their immigration status.
Elias says talk of breaking up with the United States seems to have died down, but his community remains rattled. Its future is squarely in Milan, he said.
Sepimon recently told his wife he wants to be buried in Appleton, rather than being flown back home like others.
"I feel like a part of this place," he said.