End injustice in forgotten U.S. territories

Dennis Lennox

Barack Obama’s path to the White House was forged by his renowned speech before the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but his administration hasn’t lived up to the spirit of the lofty rhetoric.

“We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America,” Obama said at the time.

That is certainly the case in American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands, where military enlistment rates are among the country’s highest per capita.

Unfortunately, the steadfast loyalty of the Americans in the territories isn’t reciprocated.

This might be a result of the Insular Cases, a series of federal Supreme Court rulings dating to when the United States acquired foreign territories in the wake of the Spanish-American War.

Simply put, the Insular Cases have created unequal and distinct classes of Americans: Those who are born or live in the states and those who live in the territories.

This is based on the same legal doctrine as Plessy v. Ferguson, which enshrined racial segregation into law.

Yet the Insular Cases protect a fundamental injustice far worse than separate but equal. In the territories, Americans — white, yellow, brown and black — are separate and unequal.

One would think if anyone would champion their cause it would be Obama. After all, this president defied the law of the land on gay marriage because he deemed it constitutionally indefensible.

However, the Justice and Interior departments under the country’s first African-American president invoke the Insular Cases, which speak of “savage,” “uncivilized” and “alien races” to justify the separate and unequal status of Americans in the territories.

Besides being unable to vote for president in the general election and lacking a full, voting member of the House of Representatives — to say nothing of having no senator — these Americans are denied many of the basic constitutional rights and protections enjoyed by those living in the states.

The worst example of this fundamental injustice is birthright citizenship.

Given to the children of illegal immigrants and even visiting foreign tourists born in the states as a matter of constitutional law, birthright citizenship is denied to America’s sons and daughters born in the territories. Congress has, at least, extended citizenship by law to four of the territories, though the statute could always be repealed.

As wrong as that is, it gets worse.

American Samoa is the one territory where Americans aren’t even citizens. They are U.S. nationals, a third-class status that requires them to immigrate if they move to the mainland, despite living under the stars and stripes, carrying U.S. passports and proudly defending the rights and liberties denied to them as separate and unequal Americans.

It looked as if this fundamental injustice might finally end, as one of the country’s foremost constitutional lawyers, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, took up the cause.

Yet the High Court punted on the case brought by American Samoans, leaving it up to Congress and the president to address the issue legislatively.

The first step in ending this fundamental injustice could come this summer.

Republicans writing the party’s platform at the national convention would be wise to follow the example of Lincoln and the other founders of the GOP by righting the wrongs wrought by the Insular Cases.

Twitter: @dennislennox