By Ariana Criste
Many residents of the continental United States lack a general awareness of the U.S.’s intricate colonial history and the people who continue to live under this specter of neocolonialism. This targets the peoples of the five inhabited national territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. For the peoples of these national territories, their life directions continue to be shaped by a series of 115-year-old cases known as the Insular Cases. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. acquired new land possessions during its imperial pursuits and the question of what role these new territories would play remained unanswered. In the Insular Cases, the Supreme Court established that they would only be granted the most basic of rights because these “alien races” would not be able to understand Anglo-Saxon principles of law and society. For the “incorporated territories,” such as Arizona, that were still on the path to statehood, the Constitution applied in its entirety. For the “unincorporated territories,” however, these protections would not be extended largely in part because of their ethnoracial compositions. The patronizing and racist undertones of these decisions would set the tone for the U.S.’s historical and contemporary interactions with its territories.
Today, these populations lack visibility and still have not been truly incorporated into the United States. They can send delegates to the nominating conventions for the Democratic and Republican parties as well as participate in the presidential primary elections. They cannot, however, participate in the electoral college or general election. Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all elect delegates to represent them in the House of Representative, but they are nonvoting members. These delegates only serve a symbolic purpose as nonvoting members of congress, so 4.1 million people are effectively barred from any real means of political representation. The blatantly prejudiced Insular Cases continue to reinforce the relations between the U.S. and these territories today.
The same judge that established the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine of racial separation in the Brown v. Board of Education delivered the decision in the first of the Insular Cases. While Brown v. Board would eventually be struck down with Plessy v. Ferguson, the Insular Cases continue to hold and have been cited in recent fights against the peculiar legal position of the U.S. territories. Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all have birthright citizenship, but lack political representation. This is because from 1917 to 1986, U.S. congress passed individual measures which slowly conferred birthright citizenship onto the four other national territories, but American Samoans remain denied birthright citizenship. American Samoans are conferred with the legal status of “U.S. nationals” at birth and are barred from many career types and from political representation, as such. Earlier this year, five American Samoans brought a case for birthright citizenship against the United States to the US Court of Appeals where it was ruled that birthright citizenship does not extend to U.S. island territories, effectively expanding the antiquated, racially-biased case precedent of the Insular Cases. They filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court and many legal scholars are hoping that the SCOTUS grants this writ. If it is granted, the SCOTUS will order the lower court to send up the documents for judicial review. It is uncertain, however, at this point whether the Supreme Court will choose to take on this case because of its widespread implications for the interpretation of the 14th amendment in a political landscape, with a growing body advocating that the U.S. end birthright citizenship. The 14th amendment’s grant of birthright citizenship has slowly been expanded to the other national territories. Any new congressional or judicial orders regarding citizenship for American Samoans would be pushing against a political current that is slowly moving against the 14th amendment’s grant of citizenship to anyone born in U.S. soil or to U.S. citizen parents. The political salience of the citizenship debate is primarily fueled by anti-immigrant anxieties directed at the growing Hispanic/Latino population in the continental United States.
Still, the plights of those within the unincorporated territories demonstrates the ways in which neocolonialism continues to impact the lives of many people within the U.S. empire. With the Obama administration’s foreign policy “Pivot to Asia,” U.S. military presence in the region is growing and many old bases of our imperial past are re-opened and new bases are created. The pacific nations of our unincorporated territories have historically and contemporarily served as strategic geopolitical points in our military pursuits. The U.S. military occupies over 27 percent of Guam’s land mass. Both Guam and American Samoa “contribute a disproportionate share of military recruits but don’t receive veteran assistance commensurate with that effort.” Despite their more than even share within American expansionary and military efforts, these people continue to be denied even the most basic protections of citizenship. This sharply contrasts with the situations of many Filipino-Americans who gained citizenship or whose families gained citizenship through their military service. Paths to citizenship have been carved out or legislated on for many Asian and Pacific-Islander groups historically, but American Samoans continue to be relegated to the status of U.S. nationals, not citizens. As politically dispossessed peoples, the national territories continue to remain subjugated in the long-standing power dynamics. While we are supposedly gearing up to celebrate our shared history with the Asia-Pacific region and increase our geopolitical presence, will we continue to ignore those caught within the webs of our own imperialist past and present?
Image By Ben Miller