Citizenship rights for natives of U.S. territories getting another day in court
Published: August 24, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - The U.S. Court of Appeals again is preparing to discuss whether citizenship is a right or a privilege for people born in the U.S. territories.
Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit Tuaua v. United States have raised the topic after they filed an appeal Friday, and the outcome of the case could ultimately raise issues about whether Virgin Islanders will be able to vote for president or how they are represented in Congress.
The appeal is within the Washington, D.C. District Court circuit and addresses the dismissal of the case, in which American Samoans asked to be made citizens, just as people in other territories are.
"They are not U.S. citizens. They are U.S. nationals," V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen said Friday.
While the results of the case will have no effect on the already standing citizenship of those in other territories, the case is expected to further discussion in all of the nation's territories about what rights those citizens have.
"This is the kind of decision that should raise eyebrows in the Virgin Islands. If the district court is correct, Congress can turn the Citizenship Clause on and off like a light bulb in U.S. territories," said Neil Weare, president of We the People, a national organization that focuses on equalizing rights and representation for the 5 million people living in U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.
The citizenship clause is what outlines the rights of citizens born in the U.S. territories of the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam. Of the nation's 13 territories, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam had their citizenship established in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Virgin Islanders had their citizenship declared in 1927.
Still, citizens born in the Virgin Islands do not have all the same rights that citizens born in the states have.
"The whole case that has been opened up intends to open up a whole series of inquiries and maybe a movement around equality for residents of the territories," Christensen said.
For instance, Virgin Islands-born citizens can vote in a primary election for the U.S. president, but they cannot vote in the final election. They also are not entitled to a vote on the floor of Congress, though their representative can vote in committees.
"These decisions are products of another era that belong in the dustbin of history," Weare said.
Many of these decisions, Weare said, began with the insular cases, or the series of early 1900 cases that outlined the relationship between the United States and its territories.
Weare will be visiting St. Thomas on Sept. 12 to talk to Virgin Islands attorneys and scholars about what could be done to reverse some of the decisions that courts have made in years past about those rights, or privileges. Details of his visit are not yet available.
He also will be talking in more detail about the Tuaua v. United States case and how the case might drive the direction of citizenship discussions in the territories in the future.
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