V.I. officials lend support to suit fighting for citizenship rights in U.S. territories

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ST. THOMAS - Former Gov. Charles Turnbull and V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen filed an amicus brief along with other past and present officials of other U.S. territories this week in a lawsuit about citizenship rights for unincorporated territories that is pending before a federal appeals court.

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 impact citizenship rights for Virgin Islands residents as well.

An amicus brief, or "friend of the court" brief, refers to participants who are not a party to a lawsuit but who are permitted, upon petition, to submit arguments or information for the court's consideration.

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

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.

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 concern is that Congress has the power to turn citizenship for territorial residents on and off. However, if Congress did take away citizenship rights for those born in the territory, it would not affect those already granted citizenship. It could only affect those born after such a decision might be made, according to legal precedent.

"So long as the Virgin Islands and other U.S. territories are part of the United States, citizenship by birth should be recognized as a right guaranteed by the Constitution, not a mere privilege extended by Congress," Christensen said in a prepared statement.

"As the Virgin Islands approaches its historic 100-year anniversary as a U.S. territory, it's about time the federal government stops arguing that the Virgin Islands and other overseas territories aren't really part of the United States when it comes to important rights and benefits. We certainly have paid our due during times of war," Turnbull said in a written statement.

Turnbull and Christensen joined in the amicus brief with Guam Delegate to Congress Madeleine Bordallo, former Governors Pedro Rossello of Puerto Rico and Carl Gutierrez of Guam and former Assistant Secretary of Interior for Insular Affairs Tony Babauta.

Their amicus brief explains how birthright citizenship has benefitted residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands without displacing what makes each of these areas unique, according to Weare.

This is not the first time lawsuits have been filed in an attempt to clarify citizenship rights for territorial residents.

St. Thomas resident Krim Ballentine has filed multiple cases over the years about citizenship issues, challenging Congress' ability to confer citizenship on people born in the Virgin Islands. In 2007, a federal judge found that Ballentine, a U.S. citizen born in Missouri, lacked standing to bring that particular issue forward.

St. Thomas attorney Russell Pate filed a number of cases in 2012 in local and federal Virgin Islands courts suing several agencies for federal voting rights. Those cases still are pending.

If the Tuaua case is won, Virgin Islanders could have a constitutional right to citizenship that cannot be given or taken away by Congress.

If the case is lost, nothing changes, Weare said.

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 later this year.

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

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

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