Conference, lawsuit focus on citizenship rights for residents of U.S. territories


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ST. THOMAS - The rights of residents in the U.S. territories are being questioned by top legal minds pushing for equal citizenship rights for all Americans.

With a Harvard University conference on the topic scheduled for this week and a lawsuit pending in federal court, the subject is getting national attention.

The lawsuit is Tuaua v. United States, and it is about American Samoa's citizenship rights. While the situation in American Samoa is different that in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the outcome of the litigation could radically change citizenship for residents in all the territories.

Neil Weare, lead counsel in Tuaua and president of We the People Project, an organization that works to achieve equal rights for residents of U.S. territories and the District of Columbia, said those born in American Samoa are not full citizens. They are considered "non-citizen nationals," and if they moved to one of the 50 states, they would have to go through the naturalization process to gain the full rights of citizenship.

In the Virgin Islands, people born in the territory are full U.S. citizens. While living in the Virgin Islands, residents have limited rights - such as not being able to vote for the president and not having a voting representative in Congress. However, when a Virgin Islander moves to one of the 50 states, all those rights are immediately restored. "If you're born in the Virgin Islands you're a U.S. citizen based on federal statute," Weare said.

Rather than citizenship for the territories being a constitutional right, a century old legal precedent called the Insular Cases makes citizenship legislated by Congress.

"The idea of them was for certain parts of the constitution, Congress can turn constitutional rights on and off like a light switch," Weare said.

The United States took ownership of the Virgin Islands in 1917, and citizenship was granted through an act of Congress in 1927.

Because citizenship for native-born Virgin Islanders was granted by Congress, it could be taken away by Congress as well, Weare said.

"If we win, people born on U.S. soil in U.S. territories will have a recognized, constitutional right to citizenship that Congress has no power to turn on or off," Weare said.

He said if the case is lost, nothing changes.

The lawsuit currently is pending before the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court, a federal appeals court. It previously was dismissed by a judge in the District Court. Weare expects arguments in the case to be heard this summer.

It is not just Weare and his organization that are concerned about the rights of those living in the territories.

Harvard University is hosting a one-day conference Wednesday titled, "Reconsidering the Insular Cases."

The keynote speaker is U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit Judge Juan Torruella, who has been outspoken about the need to throw out the antiquated legal opinion that promotes discrimination for residents of U.S. territories, known as the Insular Cases.

"The Supreme Court has suggested that it may be open to taking a fresh look at what the Insular Cases mean in the U.S. territories today," Weare said.

In a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Boumediene v. Bush, the justices expressed the relationship between the United States and its unincorporated territories may have changed in ways that are of "constitutional significance."

The high court rejected the idea that Congress should have the power to turn citizenship rights on and off at will.

Wednesday's conference will have several panel discussions, including one about contemporary issues regarding the territories.

Weare will be live-tweeting the conference, and he can be followed at @equalnow.

For more information, go to www.equalrightsnow.org.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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