America’s Empty Promise

Noah Albanese ’24

Noah Albanese ’24

Most Americans are aware of the Plessy V. Ferguson Supreme Court case, however many are not familiar with the Insular cases, which were decided by the same Supreme Court justices. The Insular cases were a series of Supreme Court cases from the early 20th century which determined the constitutional rights of those who live in United States territories. Currently, the United States territories are composed of Puerto Rico, the American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S Virgin Islands. In these cases, the courts concluded that Americans living in American territories are not granted automatic citizenship and that Congress has the authority to grant citizenship to these territories. Although there have been several improvements to their conditions, these cases have yet to be overturned; in some of the American territories, citizenship continues to not be an automatic right. 

These Supreme Court decisions were inhumane and fundamentally un-American. The United States Constitutional amendments establish assured rights for its citizens. For one, individuals gain automatic citizenship if born on American soil, which provides the right to a jury and protections against government. However, Americans born in many of these territories do not have automatic citizenship, and thus, do not have the right to a jury, nor are they protected from the government infringing on their rights. Instead, Congress had to authorize these rights for those born in American territories. In the time that Congress held these extensive capabilities, they went on to use this power by confiscating weapons, implementing tariffs, and even medical experimentation. 

Since the Insular decisions, Congress has gone on to authorize some of these rights for those born in American territories. In the mid 1990s, Americans in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands were granted citizenship and during the civil-rights movement, former territories such as Alaska and Hawaii were added to the Union. However, the legacy of this imperial era still remains. Americans in the American Samoa are not considered citizens but rather, “American Nationals” by the Federal government and territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands are still unincorporated as states. There is debate over whether or not statehood should be granted to Puerto Rico and Washington D.C, which is a step in the right direction. However, these debates are failing to attract broad support because they are often perceived through a partisan lens. Yes, D.C statehood would favor Democrats, but we should be focusing on other factors such as how D.C Americans pay the most per capita on taxes, but do not have representatives in the House or Senate. We should be looking at this issue through the question of what rights are I granted as an American and why are those in American territories not given these same rights? 

Courts should overturn the Insular cases, but that is an action that we lack the power to demand. We can, however, demand Congress authorize American citizenship to Americans living in the American Samoa. This should be a very simple issue with broad bipartisan support. After all, shouldn’t all of those who are born on American soil be considered citizens? Congress should grant the American territories the right to enter the Union. The incorporation of Washington D.C and Puerto Rico is tricky because of their political ramifications: Washington D.C is largely liberal while Puerto Rico is largely conservative. To avoid partisan backlash, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C should be incorporated at the same time to balance the power in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans. It becomes more challenging to incorporate other territories such as Guam and the Virgin Islands as states because of their small population. However, one solution is to combine these territories together to form one new state to be incorporated into the Union. 

Democrats like to talk about the need to right the wrongs inflicted on minorities in the past and Republicans like to talk about how big government limits individual freedoms. This is a perfect opportunity to bring these principles together: the right to American citizenship and congressional representation should be automatically granted to those born in American territories. Statehood for all the American territories would be the best way to make this policy a reality in the United States. 

Author’s Note: The American territorial issue is a largely unknown issue with an intriguing and complex history. For those who are interested, I recommend the book, How to Hide an Empire: History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr. This book is how I became passionate about the subject.