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Constitutional Convention Shifts 'Virgin Islander' Definitions

March 4, 2009 — In the first of two meetings of the full body this week on St. Croix, the 5th V.I. Constitutional Convention took the definitions of an ancestral Virgin Islander, native Virgin Islander and Virgin Islands resident out of the preamble and reinserted them into the body of the document.
Placing a definition in the document has been controversial both within the convention and in the general public. No special powers or privileges have been attached to the definition of native, although the draft currently requires the territorial governor and lieutenant governor to be born in the territory.
The definitions of native and ancestral Virgin Islander are complex. To summarize, an ancestral native Virgin Islander is a person born or living in the Virgin Islands before 1927, the date U.S. citizenship was first conferred on people living in the territory, as well as any direct descendants of someone who meets that criteria. A native Virgin Islander is defined as anyone born in the territory after 1927 plus anyone who is "a descendant of at least one parent who was born in the Virgin Islands after 1927." A simple "Virgin Islander" is defined as a U.S. citizen who has resided in the Virgin Islands for at least five years.
The 1927 date and other dates in the definitions are derived from the federal 1940 Nationality Act, which defines who is and who is not a U.S. citizen. Their use in the definition serves to emphasize that while the United States took possession of the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1917, the United States did not confer citizenship on most of its inhabitants for another decade.
Delegate Adelbert Bryan made a motion to move the definition from the preamble to the article on citizenship because he and other delegates were concerned it would not be "enforceable" in the preamble.
"I did not know at the time the preamble did not have a right of enforcement," Delegate Mary Moorhead said. "It was after the vote that was made clear."
Every delegate who spoke said they supported some recognition of the people who have lived for centuries in the Virgin Islands, but some saw the definition as divisive or discriminatory.
"It seems to me our ultimate purpose is to be inclusive rather than exclusive," said Delegate Frank Jackson. "All my life, the struggle of African people everywhere has been to be included. It has never been to have extra benefits but to have all the benefits the rest of society had. Unfortunately, what I see here, people who have always struggled to be included, struggled against segregation in the U.S. against apartheid in South Africa, against Jim Crow laws, have gone past that to exclusive. However, I recognize a certain group should be recognized in the constitution and therefore I thought the preamble was appropriate."
Others felt the importance of some concrete recognition in the constitution outweighed concerns about the principle of inclusion versus exclusion.
"I sit to support the spirit of Delegate Bryan's amendment on this highly charged, controversial issue," Delegate Rena Brodhurst said. "I think the spirit is to recognize a people who have gone through a long struggle."
Delegate Kendall Petersen made a similar point about the need for some official recognition.
"There is no place in the historical archives we are recognized as somebody," Petersen said. "Everybody has a place except we? No thank you."
Bryan argued the definition is only discriminatory in the harmless sense that all definitions by their nature involve saying what is and is not a part of the definition.
"It does not discriminate; it's just a definition," he said.
After this statement, he proceeded to shout about the dangers posed by outsiders.
"We have all these strangers trying to determine our future," Bryan shouted, pointing at Delegate Craig Barshinger. "They come to take these islands away from us, and if they have to transport 5,000 pregnant women here to take it away, they will do it. So there is no compromising with these people."
He continued to point at Barshinger the entire time he shouted about outsiders taking over.
Bryan said there were seven native Virgin Islanders on the constitutional convention, who he said should be ashamed of themselves if they do not support his view. He said he objected to the other 23 elected delegates voting on the issue.
Voting yea to move the definition were Bryan, Brodhurst, Gerard Emanuel, Mario Francis, Lois Hassell-Habtes, Stedman Hodge Jr., Myron Jackson, Gerard "Luz" James, Wilma Marsh Monsanto, Mary Moorhead, Eugene "Doc" Petersen, Kendall Petersen, Clair Roker, Lawrence Sewer, Elsie Thomas-Trotman, Robert Schuster and Alecia Wells. Voting nay were Craig Barshinger, Douglas Brady, Douglas Capdeville, Arnold Golden, Violet Annee Golden, Frank Jackson, Cain Magras, Thomas Moore and Richard Schrader. Absent were Michael Thurland, Charles W. Turnbull, Arturo Watlington and Lisa Williams.
The convention then voted to accept the entire article as amended.
Sections of the constitution addressing labor and economic development were sent back to committee for review and input from outside experts.
Another plenary session — a voting meeting of the entire convention — is scheduled for Thursday, beginning at 9 a.m., at the New Drive In on St. Croix. The public is invited.
The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1976 to allow the people of the Virgin Islands and Guam to adopt territorial constitutions. Any constitution has to be consistent with federal law and with the U.S. constitution. The government must be republican in form, with executive, legislative and judicial branches, and it must have a bill of rights. But there are few other restrictions.
There have been four previous constitutional conventions, but no territorial constitution yet. The most recent convention was in 1980. For a detailed history of previous conventions and extensive background information on the subject, see "V.I. CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTIONS: BACKGROUND."
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