On March 8, John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” devoted some of his show to discussing a little known issue: the rights of U.S. territories. One of the biggest takeaways from the episode was that residents of some U.S. territories are U.S. citizens in name but lack the right to vote. Even worse is that many of these territories have residents who are veterans or active duty members of the U.S. military, and are expected to pay taxes to the United States without being considered full citizens. Seriously.
So how does a country become a U.S. territory, and what are the benefits?
Some of the United States territories were purchased, like the U.S. Virgin Islands, while Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded by Spain in the late 19th century. Other territories began as post-WWII trusteeships; a system which cements the relationship between the U.S. and its territories to help promote economic, political, and social development.
The U.S. currently has territorial agreements with nine countries; American Samoa, Guam, Federated States of Micronesia, Midway Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Republic of Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Each of these countries signed an agreement with the United States which legally binds them to the U.S. Most of these agreements were created to provide military protection and exchange of resources between the U.S. and that sovereign country. The free association agreements that the U.S. makes with countries like the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia allow those countries to maintain their sovereignty but provide access to federal programs, funding and in the case of the Mariana Islands, citizenship.
Exceptions to this are Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, which are unincorporated territories of U.S. There are more benefits to being an unincorporated territory: citizenship, more access to federal programs, and access to the U.S. Judicial system. But the fact that these countries are still not considered or treated as full members of the United States highlights a serious problem. As Oliver correctly pointed out on Sunday night, most of these territories are comprised of minority populations who pay taxes to the United States, are subject to the laws of the federal government, and list Barack Obama as their president. Yet none of these U.S. citizens were able to vote in the last presidential election; and their only form of representation in Congress is one elected, non-voting representative in the House. In fact, the only say they get in the American government is their ability to vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries.
Perhaps more disconcerting is that many people do not even know that Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands even have citizenship. During his segment, Oliver showed clips of newscasters from major stations referring to Justice Sonia Sotomayor as “the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants.” Legally, Sotomayor’s parents are recognized as US citizens, and the Sotomayor family can vote because they live on the mainland. That’s right—Puerto Ricans who move to a state have full rights; including the right to vote in elections. However, there are long reaching implications of referring to Sotomayor as the child of immigrants, when all her parents did was move from a U.S. island to the mainland. No one would refer to someone moving from Hawai’i as an immigrant because Hawai’i is universally accepted as part of the U.S.
Additionally, you do not need a passport to travel to Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, because you are technically in America. It should follow that if you are standing on land considered to be America, you should enjoy the same rights you have in any other state in America. The problem is that these territories are technically not states (an arduous process that requires Congressional support and a signature from the president) and the U.S. government is content to maintain the status quo. Both parties have expressed support for statehood, which would give Puerto Rican Americans the right to vote. So what is stopping Puerto Rico’s admission as a state? Concerns about which way the 51st state would swing in national elections. The Republican Party worries that Puerto Rico, which is almost three times the size of Rhode Island, would overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. A Puerto Rican state could potentially introduce five Democrats to the House of Representatives, and up to seven electoral college votes.
Yet the impact of these territories cannot be denied. In 2014, Huffington Post reported that there are more than four million people living in U.S. territories, and of that number, 20,000 “U.S. citizens” have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but can only vote in the primaries. Even the ability to vote in the primaries is not a constitutional guarantee, but one given by party leadership to U.S. territories.
One of the biggest problems with being a half-citizen is that you are not guaranteed the same civil rights as a U.S. citizen born on the mainland, or even the same rights as someone born on a military base. Not only do people who identify as LGBTQI not have the protection of the federal government against discrimination, as a recent Huffington Post article points out, some federal judges who are under the U.S. judicial system are refusing to follow precedent and hear marriage equality cases. This is especially unsettling as the upcoming Supreme Court case on marriage equality may overturn previous anti-gay marriage laws.
While strides are being made across the country towards marriage equality, we cannot ignore the fact that there are more than four million people living in the United States whose citizenship should guarantee them the inalienable rights that all Americans deserve. How can you help make a difference? Support candidates who favor granting all Americans their constitutional rights!